Seattle voters may end up with last word on bag fee
Seattle voters moved a step closer Thursday to getting a chance to repeal the 20-cent bag fee the city wants all grocery, convenience and drugstores to charge for paper and plastic bags when a coalition of plastic and grocery industries submitted 22,252 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle voters moved a step closer Thursday to getting a chance to repeal the 20-cent bag fee the city wants all grocery, convenience and drugstores to charge for paper and plastic bags.
A coalition of plastic and grocery industries submitted 22,252 signatures to the city this week to allow voters to decide whether they favor the fee — 14,374 of them must be verified to put the issue on the ballot. The deadline was Thursday to submit the signatures.
The King County Elections Division will check the signatures to make sure they came from registered Seattle voters and that valid voters did not sign twice. No timetable has been set for that process, but election officials are required to act with reasonable promptness.
"People should have the right to vote on it," said George Griffin, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, which gathered the signatures and was formed by the American Chemistry Council and the Washington Food Industry, an association that represents Washington's independent grocery industry.
Regina LaBelle, Mayor Greg Nickels's legal counsel, said it is likely the issue will end up on the ballot in light of the number of signatures.
"I think this is going to be an opportunity to have a real public discussion on this," LaBelle said, noting Seattle residents are known to be concerned about the environment.
LaBelle said a campaign-disclosure form makes it clear the American Chemistry Council is the primary backer of the anti-fee effort and is providing the financial backing.
Griffin said the question is one of public policy, no matter who is paying.
If the required number of signatures is reached, the Seattle City Council must let voters decide on the fee in the next regularly scheduled election or in a special election, which is costly. But under election-planning rules, the measure wouldn't go on the ballot until after this year's general election in November. The next city election is the August 2009 primary.
The fee, set to go into effect Jan. 1, would be held in abeyance until the issue went to voters, who would be asked whether they support the fee or want it repealed.
Citing environmental concerns, the council approved the fee last month. Shoppers would be charged 20 cents for each disposable paper or plastic bag they use.
The proposed ballot measure would not affect other restrictions approved by the council at the same time — a ban on polystyrene or Styrofoam containers beginning in January, and bans beginning in 2010 on plastic food containers and plastic utensils from businesses that serve food and on foam trays for raw meat and seafood from groceries.
Griffin said the fee asks too much of consumers during tough economic times, including high gas and food prices, and puts too great a burden on the poor. The coalition favors voluntary, educational efforts to reduce bag use and encourage recycling and believes Seattle already has a good conservation record, he said.
He said Seattle residents seemed to be angry about the fee, noting it took just two weeks to gather the signatures after the effort began Aug. 8.
The city plans to give at least one free, reusable bag to each household. The council also directed Seattle Public Utilities to develop a plan by the end of November on how to provide extra bags to low-income residents.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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