Despite a threatened lawsuit and opposition from area grocers, the Palo Alto City Council voted Monday night to ban plastic checkout bags from local grocery stores, effective Sept. 18.
The council also indicated that broader bans on the bags would soon be implemented, along with a campaign to convert more shoppers to cloth or other reusable bags. These include a ban on checkout plastic bags at all local stores and a restriction on plastic bags that cover newspapers during the rainy season.
The council voted 7-1, with Councilman John Barton dissenting and Councilman Larry Klein absent, to institute the grocery-bag ban. But the vote came only after extensive wrangling over details of the new ordinance.
A few councilmen advocated delaying the discussion until they've had a chance to discuss the potential legal risk in a closed session with City Attorney Gary Baum. Barton asked his colleagues to put off the discussion to a date uncertain because "the legal landscape has changed."
Councilmen Pat Burt and Yiaway Yeh agreed, but the rest of the council opted to proceed with the initial bag ban.
Vice Mayor Jack Morton urged colleagues not to delay the process any further, even if a lawsuit seems inevitable. He noted that the council had already been discussing the issue for months and said a closed session wouldn't provide members any information they didn't already have.
"I think it's un-Palo Altan of us to stop this in mid-process and go into a closed session," Morton said.
"It's incumbent on us to move forward even if it may not be a favorable litigation arena, since I believe in all likelihood we will still be sued," he added.
The council last discussed the proposed ban in November, at which time members expressed unanimous support for the limited bag ban. But last month, Manhattan Beach saw a judge overthrow its own recently passed ordinance because the city failed to complete an in-depth environmental review and an environmental impact report.
The industry-backed group SaveThePlasticBag.com, which successfully challenged the Manhattan Beach ordinance, also said it plans to take Palo Alto to court over its new ordinance. Palo Alto also chose not to do an EIR.
Stephen Joseph, an attorney representing the group, argued that banning plastic bags would only force people to use more paper bags, which would cause even more environmental destruction.
The group's campaign, he said, is a response to the "myths, misinformation and exaggerations that have been spread about plastic bags for several years." Minutes before the council voted, Joseph said the group would file a writ of mandate in superior court, challenging the ordinance.
"The city's defense of the case will be a further waste of taxpayer money," Joseph said.
Grocers also asked the council not to act too hastily. Timothy James, representing the California Grocers Association, said the ordinance unfairly singles out grocery stores rather than coming up with a uniform rule for all businesses. He also said the new ordinance would have very little environmental benefit.
"In other jurisdictions, citizens simply moved to paper bags, which have their own challenges," James said.
The ban on checkout plastic bags at grocery stores would not apply to plastic bags used in meat and produce departments.
The ban would only impact four local supermarkets: Safeway, JJ&F, Andronico's and Molly Stone's. Three others -- Whole Foods, Country Sun and Piazza's -- have already voluntarily scrapped plastic bags.
The council directed staff to prepare a proposal for charging fees for paper bags by Sept. 18. The council also asked staff to consider a ban on plastic bags at all local stores and to come up with a way to measure the effects of the policy changes on customer behavior.