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Voters reject grocery bag fee

City Council enacted ordinance
“We've created a conversation. ... I still believe in the power of government to make a positive impact in people's lives,” said Ellen Stein, right, organizer for the Durango Bag It! campaign, on Tuesday evening at Eno Wine Bar. From left are volunteers Mip Van Suchtelen, Charlie Shew and Stein.

Durango voters Tuesday repealed a City Council ordinance that would have charged shoppers 10 cents for each disposable bag they carry away from grocery stores.

The fee was intended to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags, but it was seen by opponents as nanny-state meddling.

Voters repealed the ordinance before it was to take effect, with 56 percent in favor of repeal and 44 percent opposing repeal. That was with a handful of votes yet to be counted Tuesday night.

“I'm just happy that the voters in Durango exercised some adult supervision on their extreme and juvenile City Council,” said Kristen Smith, part of the pro-repeal group No Durango Bag Tax. “We worked hard to defeat it, and would encourage other citizens to run for council who think voice of reason should be there to represent the people.”

The repeal vote is an unprecedented ballot-box rejection of a City Council-passed ordinance, and a setback for Durango's passionate environmental community.

“I'm disappointed but excited,” said Ellen Stein, who led the Durango Bag It! group in favor of attaching a fee to bag use. “We created a conversation, and that is really important.”

The proposed fee touched a nerve in Durango, where it was seen by supporters as a step toward environmental responsibility and a low-impact way of life. Opponents characterized the bag fee as an unnecessary nuisance.

The bag fee was passed 4-1 by the City Council in August, but a petition from unhappy constituents forced the council to either repeal the fee or refer it to the November ballot. Councilors chose the latter.

Dave Peters, a Durango resident and retiree from the gas and oil industry, helped lead the campaign to repeal. He said he was pleased voters rejected the ordinance, which he called symbolic.

“I felt all along that this ordinance really needed to go to the voters,” he said. “In a way, it's kind of a report card on the mayor and the City Council. Hopefully, they get back to meaningful issues.”

Peters said passing the ordinance without a referendum could have run afoul of the state's TABOR law and entangled the city in litigation. He added the ordinance simply wouldn't have made enough impact to be worthwhile.

“I just felt there wasn't enough environmental benefit to justify the cost to low-income people and fixed-income people,” he said.

Mayor Dick White said the issue would be revisited.

“As soon as we finish frying the bigger fish of waste management, we'll come back and visit this again,” White said, responding to criticisms that there are bigger environmental problems to tackle. “When you've invested as much energy as we have, you want to see something come of it.”

The Durango Bag It! campaign involved canvassing, robocalls, ads and other outreach efforts, attracting students and environmental activists to volunteer.

“We did a lot with a little in a short amount of time,” Stein said. “It was just a very cool community effort.”

Stein attributed the ordinance's defeat to an anti-government political environment. Voters were in no mood to endorse the City Council's vote after the federal government shutdown in October and the botched roll-out of health-care reform, she said.

“It couldn't be a worse environment politically for people's feelings with government,” she said.

Some voters opposed the fee because it didn't go far enough, Stein said. She noted Telluride attached a fee to plastic bags before banning them.

Stein said the environmental issue at the heart of the ordinance isn't going away.

“Nothing has changed about the need to reduce our waste,” she said. “It's how we go about it.”

Staff Writer Ann Butler contributed to this report.


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