On April 15, the Newport City Council voted to ban single-use carryout plastic bags in the city. Almost immediately after that, a small group of Newport residents launched a petition to send the ordinance out for a vote. At issue was whether the city council should exercise its powers to represent the people who voted for them and pass ordinances without referring each one for a vote, or whether the council should only pass an ordinance after a “yes” vote by a majority of the voters.
The Newport Chapter of Surfrider Foundation and a number of citizens had argued in favor of passing the ordinance as soon as possible to forestall further degradation of the environment, killing of marine wildlife and doing damage to our own health. Those against argued that passing an ordinance without a vote would be undemocratic and therefore wrong.
The argument is an old one. The founders of our country argued a lot about the pros and cons of democracy, and in the end decided this country would be a republic. In a republic, people don’t vote on every single issue, as they must do in a true democracy. Instead, they mostly vote for other people who then vote for them.
So, when the Newport City Council voted to pass the Ban the Bag ordinance without sending it to the ballot, they were operating legitimately in our republic. This is the republic that even our school children pledge allegiance to in the morning (and they don’t even get to vote).
Our system of government also allows for petitions by citizens who believe that a particular decision by someone in charge is not in their best interest. The petition to send the Ban the Bag ordinance to the voters required 10 percent of the voters to sign, as all such petitions do. The required number were not obtained, so the ordinance stands as passed. Beginning on July 1, retail stores with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space will stop handing out single-use bags. All other retailers will have until Jan. 1 to comply.
Katharine Valentino, Vice Chair
Newport Chapter, Surfrider Foundation