Reflections on the Scotts Valley Plastic Bag Ban Debate
What is public opinion worth? Civinomics conducts a public opinion poll of registered voters in Scotts Valley asking whether they would support a city-wide ban on plastic bags along with a fee on paper bags. Scotts Valley currently lags behind the rest of the county in passing a ban, so this seemed like an important local issue for us to study. The poll was statistically accurate with a 95% confidence level, and the results were crystal clear: 72% of Scotts Valley residents would vote “yes” in support of a plastic bag ban. And their city council? Last Wednesday they voted 4:1 against it. I was at the meeting presenting the results and as far as I could tell the public opinion of their constituents had NO impact on the council’s decision. What went wrong?
The first problem with the process was that the council got the last word (literally) before they made a decision. There was no opportunity for the public or experts on the issue to address the council’s specific concerns and biases. For those of you who have never been to a city council meeting, first public comment is heard, then the council summarizes their thoughts on the issue, then they vote on the motion at hand. With this structure the public doesn’t know what the council’s pre-existing opinions are and cannot address their questions and concerns. In this case it was clear that the council came in with strong pre-existing opinions. For Councilwoman Lind it was the impact of a paper bag fee on seniors; for Councilmen Bustichi and Johnson it was that plastic is ubiquitous and they couldn’t see the value in an incremental step to reduce it; Mayor Jim Reed felt it wasn’t within the purview of a City Council to create these kinds of ordinances, that it is something that should be controlled at the state level (indeed there is state legislation pending, SB 270, although there is no guarantee it will pass). The frustrating thing is that these concerns are nothing new. I personally heard every single one of them while conducting the opinion poll, and yet the public still clearly supported the ban. The council wasn’t offering new or more informed opinions, but they felt that their opinions were more significant. In the end, they got the last word and they managed to convince themselves of their pre-existing biases before voting against the ban.
The second problem was the council’s abdication of responsibility for making a new ordinance within their jurisdiction. This gets back to Mayor Jim Reed’s two part argument that there is 1) a California State Senate Bill pending and 2) if the city addresses an issue like plastic pollution, which is a global problem, there is no reason they won’t be overwhelmed with requests to take action on other global problems, like nuclear radiation or human trafficking, that they can’t realistically affect. The problem with this argument is that the voters of Scotts Valley have just two ways to create laws for themselves – the initiative process and their elected representatives. If their elected representatives don’t recognize a responsibility to implement ordinances their constituents support, they deprive those constituents of a major route to governing themselves. The citizens of Scotts Valley want a plastic bag ban, 3.6 citizens in favor for every 1 against. This is a margin that would easily defeat a filibuster. These citizens want a ban whether the state implements one or not, and it’s not the city council’s place to selectively decide that this is not within their core mission. Their mission is to act on their constituent’s behalf to govern their jurisdiction.
Which brings us to the third problem, the people who Civinomics interviewed that support a Scotts Valley Plastic Bag Ban were not at the meeting where the decision was made. Call it a rookie mistake – we at Civinomics believed the vote of the people should suffice. Citizens are busy, they have lives, they go to work, they take their kids to school and soccer practice. By conducting the opinion poll we provided a way to get their voice into that council meeting. But it was not enough. If that opinion doesn’t have teeth, if ignoring it doesn’t threaten their political future, if the public doesn’t keep up the pressure or let them know their dismay, then it can be ignored.
So where do we go from here? How can Civinomics help public opinion triumph next time? 1) We can collect pro and con statements on any issue not only from the public but also from representatives well in advance. Let our elected officials share their concerns and questions and challenge the public or experts to respond. Because respond they will. 2) Create a culture where citizens and representatives recognize their jurisdiction as an independent laboratory of democracy. This can be accomplished with more civic education in schools and public meetings. 3) When conducting opinion polls, gauge citizens level of concern and desire to be involved. Do you want to volunteer? Do you want to come to the City Council meeting where this decision will be addressed? Do you want to participate in civil demonstrations on this issue? The only thing that has ever changed our politics is concerned and engaged citizens. Civinomics will be developing more functionality to connect people and build coalitions so they can organize for action.