Tempe Aims to Curtail Influence of Lobbyists, Money in City Elections

City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby has made her stance on the regulation efforts clear

The City of Tempe is working to restrict the influence of lobbyists and money in elections beyond state law. City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby has made her stance on the regulation efforts clear.

“Money is at the root of all public policy ills,” Kuby said. Kuby points to the role of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, in the 2014 election of Arizona Corporation Commission members who set rates for utilities, as an example of the influence of large contributions in elections. The FBI and APS’s parent company, Pinnacle West, have confirmed there is an investigation into the election.

Kuby said new regulations, including campaign contribution limits recently approved by Gov. Doug Ducey, will ensure that those running for office will not be in the hands of special interest groups.

“I think it’s much better to have people beholden to voters, not donors,” Kuby said. “I do think taking money from lobbyists or attorneys gives you better access.”

The movement to limit the amount of money in politics was originally spearheaded by Councilman David Schapira and has gained traction again after measures to publicly fund city elections failed to garner enough support to pass in 2015.

After the plan failed, the city’s Clean Election Working Group morphed into the Campaign Finance Working Group and will meet on June 13 to discuss further transparency efforts.

“This is a larger move toward open and transparent government,” Kuby said.

The working group recently saw success when Ducey signed off on the city’s charter amendment that limits the amount of money individuals and political action committees can contribute to a candidate’s campaigns.

Tempe now caps campaign contributions at $500 per individual and $1,000 for political action committees and political parties. There is also a $10,000 limit on total contributions from political parties in an election cycle, and a $10,000 total limit from PACs or multicandidate PACs.

State statutes set a $5,100 limit for individual candidates for statewide or legislative offices and a $6,350 limit for individual contributions to local candidates. PACs can contribute up to $6,350 to local election candidates, while mega-PACs can give up to $12,600. Political parties can give up to $10,100 to local candidates under state law.

“We’re not done,” Kuby said.

The next change Kuby would like to see is a system that reports campaign contributions in real-time because campaign finance reports often become available too late in the election campaign for citizens and reporters. They become available only days before ballots go out. “I believe our council is very ethical and wants this info out there,” Kuby said.

Kuby is also looking to enforce donor information requirements from campaign contributions more strictly.

According to Kuby, there were complaints last election of a donor’s occupation being excluded from campaign finance information, and Kuby said she wants to make sure candidates have to fill in donor information if they are accepting the money.

Kuby said she believes measures like these have had an impact in Arizona politics.

Sen. Juan Mendez and Reps. Athena Salman and Isela Blanc, all Tempe Democrats who ran in Legislative District 26 as a pro Clean Elections team, all won their races, which Kuby said is indicative of the public support of the election regulations Tempe is pioneering. However, Democrats do hold a large advantage over Republicans in LD26 with 345 voters in the district registered as Democrats, 27% Republican, and 39% as independents.

Supporters of stricter campaign regulations may have public support on their side as 88.5% of Tempe voters were in favor of lowering campaign contribution limits in the March 2016 election to amend the city’s charter. “I think it’s a mandate to continue modifying our campaign regulations,” Kuby said.

Despite what Kuby sees as public support, she said she does think there will be some resistance. “I think there will be division because there was division before,” Kuby said. When plans for publicly funded elections failed in 2015, 15 former Tempe mayors and councilmembers opposed the plan.

Jim Manley, senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit that uses litigation and legislation to push libertarian public policy, said the group opposes the new limits set on campaign contributions but has not looked into litigation.

“Any contribution limits stifles speech because contributing to a candidate is a form of speech and association, and when the government put limits on that speech and association, it prevents people from speaking and associating,” Manley said. Manley said the limits were “meaningless” because the charter amendment does not place any limits on independent expenditure committees.

“They are still going to have tons of money spent on these campaigns, Manley said. “It’s just going to be spent by independent groups, and I know that some people think that independent expenditures tend to be nastier than materials that the campaign would produce itself.”

Kuby said that the new regulation serves the larger purpose of “reducing the money in politics.” “I’m going to be looking, too, at shining the light on independent expenditure,” Kuby said.

According to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, it is unlikely though that there will be any cities limiting campaign contributions soon. “We have not heard of any other city that is interested in that,” Patrice Kraus, the league’s legislative director said. Looking forward, Tempe’s officials may have to weigh whether their loyalty lies with special interest groups or citizens.

“Tempe has a very activist group of citizens,” Kraus said.

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Tempe becomes a blue job mecca in the red sea of Arizona

Lauren Kuby doesn’t mind being a poster child.

Kuby also doesn’t mind making Tempe a poster child for her politically liberal causes in an otherwise conservative Arizona — causes she said can be good for businesses.

A Tempe councilwoman and community engagement manager for Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, Kuby is the lead progressive and a lightning rod on the council — and increasingly a leading liberal in a state dominated by Republicans and their business allies.

Among what could be considered more liberal city efforts, Kuby has led Tempe to:

  • Expand workplace and contracting anti-discrimination protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community
  • Restrict plastic grocery bags
  • Require employers to offer earned paid sick leave
  • Prohibit pet stores from selling dogs and cats from breeders feared to run puppy mills
  • Encourage employers to publicize equal pay for women’s efforts
  • Increase the city’s investment in renewable energy

Those efforts have put Kuby and Tempe at odds with some business interests worried about government mandates. They also have drawn action from state legislators looking to curb the powers cities have over businesses. “They said the sky was going to fall down,” said Kuby of business reactions to her efforts on paid sick leave, an issue now heading to the November ballot as part of a package for state voters to approve.

To Kuby and others, Tempe looks more like Austin, Texas — a politically progressive college town with substantial technology and creative business sectors in an otherwise conservative state.

The leftward move is not without its economic benefits. Donna Kennedy, Tempe’s economic development director, said the city’s progressive — and often controversial — issues have put Tempe on the map for companies that prioritize diversity, inclusion and sustainability.

“We’re getting out in front of some issues,” she said. Kennedy said Tempe’s politics are appealing to startups with younger executives and globally-minded workers. “Everybody wants to be inclusive,” she said.

A progressive approach
While Arizona has faced boycotts and lost conventions because of crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and almost lost the Super Bowl in 2015 over the Senate Bill 1062, better known as the religious freedom bill, Kennedy said Tempe’s “headlines” are appealing to progressive-minded businesses.

Kuby said she looks at what Austin and other college towns, such as Boulder, Colorado, are doing when it comes to diversity and sustainability and their ability to draw in businesses.

“Austin is definitely one of the cities we look at,” she said.

A progressive agenda can appeal to technology and creative businesses, big national companies and millennial workers. They tend to lean left on issues such as LGBT rights, transit and renewable energy.
State FarmNorthern Trust, GoDaddy and most recently John Hancock Investments have located new offices and big operations to Tempe.

Northern Trust executives specifically mentioned Tempe fitting into the company’s diversity policies as factoring into its decision. Tempe and Phoenix have extended discrimination protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Tempe also has ASU’s 83,000 students, the Metro light rail system and Mill Avenue’s restaurants and bars to tout to businesses. Those are often more important than politics.

One of the city’s biggest new employers is State Farm, which is consolidating as many as 8,000 employees at the Marina Heights development on Tempe Town Lake across from Sun Devil Stadium. State Farm spokeswoman Angela Thorpe said culture and diversity are important.

“At State Farm, we’re committed to an inclusive environment where all our associates and customers are treated with respect and dignity, and differences are valued all throughout the company,” she said.
But Thorpe said State Farm also likes its new location’s proximity to ASU and the light rail, and having major operations in a larger market such as the Phoenix region. State Farm has regional hubs in Atlanta and Dallas in addition to Tempe.

GoDaddy opened a new large operations center in Tempe in 2014. GoDaddy Senior Director of Global Real Estate Calvin Crowder said sustainability is a big focus at that center.

Other companies are hesitant to wade into the debate of LGBT issues. One veteran commercial real estate broker asked that a name and comments not be used after being asked about Tempe’s anti-discrimination protections being extended to LGBT persons. Several other companies were contacted for this story, but were leery about commenting on Tempe’s liberal policies.

Worries about mandates
Tempe Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mary Ann Miller said her group is a long-time advocate of transit in Tempe. The chamber understands millennials, as well as creative and higher-wage companies, often favor some progressive policies.

Where the chamber departs from liberal city policies is when Tempe tries to mandate business practices or increase costs.“Why are they telling me how to run my business” is the dissenting refrain Miller said she hears from some businesses.
The fear is businesses have the luxury in a market such as Phoenix to move to a neighboring city such as Scottsdale, Mesa or Chandler if they are put off by something Tempe does, Miller said. “That’s our concern,” she said.

But Tempe is among the region’s fastest recovering areas since the recession. Class A office rents in north Tempe have gone from the $22-per-foot range between $35 and $40 per square foot. Of the 3.1 million square feet of office space under construction in the Valley at the end of 2015, 2.1 million were being built in Tempe, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

There also are several hotels and some large new office developments proposed. The Arizona Coyotes hockey team and ASU may partner on a new arena and development at Karsten Golf Course site east of the Tempe campus.

The northern part of Tempe also had more leasing activity last year than any other submarket.
​“Our real estate market is booming,” Kennedy said.

Courting a backlash
Some liberal pushes in Tempe and Phoenix have prompted business interests to go to the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature to block those actions. The National Federation of Independent Business lobbied, with the owner of the Puppies ’N Love and Animal Kingdom, for a bill that takes regulation of pet stores away from cities. That came after Phoenix and Tempe, led by Kuby, looked to restrict retail pet sales from so-called puppy mills.

​NFIB Arizona Director Farrell Quinlan said the pet store bill has the state punishing and overseeing retailers and breeders. He said it’s better to have uniform state oversight rather than various local ordinances. Kuby and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns disagreed, arguing it should be a local matter.

The NAIOP Arizona real estate group took a similar stance in getting the Legislature to stop Phoenix from a proposal to mandate landlords and other commercial property owners to report their energy use. Retailers and grocery stores also fought a Tempe plan, again led by Kuby, to join cities such as Austin, Santa Monica, California, and Boulder in banning plastic bags.

Gov. Doug Ducey approved those bills restricting cities’ regulatory power over businesses.
Kuby said she believes it’s better to have cities decide such issues in part because city councils are more accessible to constituents than the Legislature, where measures often are passed with limited public input.

“We have a real public engagement process,” Kuby said. For issues such as paid sick leave, for example, the city met with various stakeholders and interested parties, Kuby said.
But Miller said business and other constituencies have been caught by surprise by some proposals coming out of city work groups on issues. Not all businesses are on board with liberal policies such as LGBT workplace protections.

Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka, owners of calligraphy and art studio Brush & Nib, filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court in May challenging Phoenix’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, saying they could be fined if they don’t serve same-sex customers. The pair specialize in wedding invitations and argue same-sex marriage goes against their Christian beliefs.
“Our rights are being violated,” said Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney with the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom legal group representing the studio. Tempe’s LGBT protections have not been challenged, but could hinge on the Phoenix lawsuit.

Kennedy said she hasn’t come across a business prospect that has cited politics or public policy in not locating to Tempe.

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10 reasons to ban commercially bred pet sales

The Tempe City Council is holding public hearings on an ordinance to prohibit the sale of pets bred in commercial-breeding facilities. Our proposed ordinancerepresents a compassionate, common-sense initiative to address the problems associated with the sale of pet mill animals in our community.

The hearings are Thursday, Jan. 28, and Thursday, Feb. 11.

Tempe should restrict the retail sale of dogs and cats, unless the pets come from shelters or rescue groups. Here are 10 reasons why:

  1. Commercial breeding facilities, commonly referred to as puppy mills, are the exclusive suppliers of commercial pet stores. Reputable, nonprofit, hobby breeders do not sell puppies to commercial pet stores.
  2. Currently, there is no effective mechanism for regulating puppy mills, as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards of care for breeding dogs are shockingly low, inspections are sporadic and violations are widely unenforced.
  3. Puppies from commercial breeders are statistically more likely to have genetic abnormalities, as well as serious ongoing health and behavioral problems.
  4. Pet store puppies are typically sold significantly above the price charged by reputable breeders and without the pedigrees and health testing that come with reputable breeders.
  5. Many pet store puppies are paid for through in-house financing that comes with high interest rates and finance charges, typically adding upwards of $1,000 to the puppy’s final price.
  6. Our residents have reported being misled or given blatantly false information about the source, health, pedigree and quality of the puppies in pet stores, as well as about the health guarantee.
  7. The City of Tempe has no realistic jurisdiction over breeding practices or the welfare of commercially bred animals, as most puppy mills are from out of state, but the city does have an obligation to protect residents from fraudulent or misleading business practices.
  8. The proposed ordinance does not ban pet stores altogether, just the sale of commercially bred puppies. Pet store owners may choose to shift to a sustainable business model offering rescued dogs and cats, as many stores have done.
  9. The proposed ordinance places no limit on a private citizen’s right to purchase a purebred puppy from a reputable breeder of their choice, either locally or nationally. The ordinance would eliminate the store’s ability to target impulse buyers and instead encourage prospective pet buyers to do the minimal research required to find and purchase their breed of choice.
  10. More than 110 cities have passed similar bans and puppy mills are finding it more difficult to secure buyers. Eliminating commercial pet sales within local jurisdictions lessens the overall national demand for puppy-mill puppies and has already begun to reduce the number of active puppy mills across the country.

 

A ban on the sale of puppy mill puppies has also been shown to lower the euthanasia rates of dogs and cats in the local shelters of cities that have put this ordinance in place.
It’s ultimately the taxpayers who pay for animal control to shelter and euthanize animals that would otherwise make wonderful pets.

Adopting a rescue pet saves a life and helps stop the cruelty present in so many commercial-breeding facilities. To protect animals and consumers, Tempe is considering a Commercial Pet Sales Ordinance. To voice your opinion to the City Council before the Feb. 11 vote, email: councilcommunicator@tempe.gov.

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The Fight Over Plastic Bags is About a Lot More Than How to Get Groceries Home

Lauren Kuby had a simple ambition: She wanted to get something done. Kuby works by day at a sustainability institute that’s part of Arizona State University in Tempe, but last year she decided to run for City Council. President Obama had called for state and local action in his State of the Union address in 2015, encouraging municipalities to act as laboratories for progressive change, and Kuby took his words to heart. After she was sworn in to her new council seat in January, she started looking for a project to take on. She quickly found one: plastic bags.

You are no doubt familiar with plastic bags — you probably own several dozen of them right now, likely folded in a drawer, or crammed under your sink, or stuffed inside other, larger plastic bags. (A singular feature of the plastic bag is that it’s one of the few pieces of refuse that can, cannibalistically, contain itself.) Because if you are a typical New Yorker, you go through roughly 620 single-use plastic bags a year. If that figure sounds high, consider this: It’s about two a day. Now think about the last 24 hours of your life. Did you get a plastic bag at the deli? At Fairway? Did a bag come wrapped around your Seamless order? All of the above? In a year, New York City as a whole manages to go through 5.2 billion single-use plastic bags. That’s about 10,000 bags a minute — the vast majority of which end up as landfill.

Tempe’s population is just 168,000, yet it goes through at least 50 million plastic bags a year. So Kuby started looking at other cities to see how they’ve dealt with bags. In 2000, when Mumbai discovered that plastic bags were clogging storm drains and exacerbating flooding during monsoon season, it banned them altogether. Plastic bags have also been banned in Bangladesh, Taiwan, Kenya, Rwanda, and Mexico City. By most accounts, these bans were accommodated and even embraced by locals.

Tempe, however, never had a chance to implement any bag legislation because, in April, the Arizona State Legislature passed SB 1241, a health-care bill with a curious amendment that declared that no city or town may “impose a tax, fee, assessment, charge or return deposit … for auxiliary containers.” In an unexpected, Dr. Seussian twist, Arizona had preemptively banned the ban: You ban bags? We’ll ban bag bans! Arizona is not the first state to enact a ban ban; Florida did so in 2008, and Missouri and Texas are investigating similar legislation.

Proponents of preemptively banning the bag ban argue that local bans create a confusing hodgepodge of regulation and that environmental fears over plastic bags are overblown. Others see the skirmish as part of a larger war: The unending fight to combat government tyranny and protect the American Way. Some commentators have even connected efforts to regulate plastic bags to a conspiracy involving Agenda 21, a U.N. sustainability initiative that’s become a focus of fears about the advent of one-world control. Of a bag ban enacted (and subsequently repealed) in Dallas, Glenn Beck, noted Agenda 21–ologist and famously sensitive barometer of societal cataclysm, warned his radio listeners: “You have got to stand up for little things like the plastic-bag thing … If I want to use a plastic bag, I will use a plastic bag … Fascists ban things. What are we doing?”

What Kuby hadn’t realized is that in attempting to address the tens of thousands that Tempe spends annually disposing of discarded plastic bags, she’d stumbled into a larger fight. It’s a battle being waged across the country — and one that’s about to open its newest front in New York: Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’d promised a bag ban in his campaign platform, is currently considering how, and whether, to tackle the issue. The battle is not just being fought over the fate of a familiar modern convenience but over, for one side, our last vestiges of freedom and, for the other, the future of planet Earth. And fluttering above this battlefield like the tattered banner of a besieged army, amid a haze of misinformation, counter­arguments, and money, money, money, you’ll find a single, flimsy, humble plastic bag.

Plastic bags are amazing.
 You can carry your groceries in them. You can use one to line your bathroom trash can. You can put one on your head as an impromptu rain bonnet. You can quickly and cleanly pick up dog shit. You can even thank a plastic bag in your Oscar speech, as Alan Ball once did, when he concluded the thank yous for his Best Screenplay award for American Beauty: “And finally, that plastic bag in front of the World Trade Center so many years ago, for being whatever it is that inspires us to do what we do.” American Beauty, of course, contains perhaps the single most famous appearance of a plastic bag in the entire cultural corpus: a scene in which a disaffected character watches a video of a plastic bag dancing in the wind and declares, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world.”

The single-use plastic grocery bag, which was born about 50 years ago, is the answer to a question no one was asking and the solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Back in the 1960s, not many people were wondering, How can I possibly carry my stuff around?, since people had been carrying their stuff around uneventfully for millennia — in cloth bags, burlap sacks, leather pouches, and, once upon a time, dried-out bull scrota. What some people were asking — petrochemical companies, most notably, since plastic is manufactured from by-products of petroleum and natural gas — was: “What else in the world can be made out of plastic?”

In 1962, a Swedish inventor, Sten Thulin, filed a patent for a thin, plastic bag, folded and made in such a way as to provide improbable strength and durability. Consumers were initially resistant to replacing their familiar paper bags, but by the early 1980s, national grocery chains were subbing paper for plastic, largely because plastic was cheaper: These days, the cost is one to two cents per bag, as opposed to six to eight cents for paper bags. The ascent of the plastic grocery bag, ironically, was applauded by many environmentalists, given that plastic didn’t require the consumption of trees.

But the heyday of plastics as a perceived modern miracle was surprisingly brief. In 1955, Life magazine published a story titled “Throwaway Living,” announcing that, thanks to the convenience of disposable plastic items, the average American had been freed from domestic drudgery. The accompanying photo showed a Cleaver-esque family tossing disposable items in the air like confetti: “The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean — except no housewife need bother.” By 1967, however, Benjamin Braddock’s neighbor in The Graduate was passing on his famously chilling career advice: “Plastics!” Once the plastic grocery bag arrived in stores about ten years later, it seemed less like a miracle than like just another plastic thing to be absorbed into our increasingly plasticized lives. Homeless women became “bag ladies”; plastic bags picked up the derogatory nickname “Italian suitcase.” In her hit “Firework,” Katy Perry sings: “Do you ever feel / Like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind / Wanting to start again?” Plastic bags have become symbols of the quotidian, the boring, the grindingly mundane.

They’ve also become a problem. They’re a problem for city sanitation departments, because they’re so light and aerodynamic, which makes them a particularly pernicious litter nuisance when they’re blown out of trash receptacles into trees, gutters, fences, and parks. Environmentalists dislike them because they often end up on beaches and coastal waters, endangering marine life. They’ve also become a target for anyone who’s generally concerned that we’ve reached a point in human history when manufacturing a brand-new item that’s intended to be used for, on average, 12 minutes, then discarded to linger more or less forever in a landfill, seems like a totally routine thing to do. If nothing else, the raw numbers are staggering. The world goes through more than a trillion bags a year. All this prompted a U.N. undersecretary-general to declare that bags “should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere” because “there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”

But it’s not like plastic bags are that much worse than other plastic products. In a sense, plastic bags have become a victim of their own mundanity. Cars are an environmental problem, too, but few people are suggesting an outright ban on cars, because people love their cars and a world without cars is hard to imagine. Not so for plastic bags: Everyone uses them but nobody loves them, and they’re easily replaced with other kinds of bags. Which is precisely why they’ve become such a fitting symbol of a striking modern dilemma: They’re a ubiquitous convenience that’s not essential, that no one’s truly enamored of, yet one from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves. Of all the perils facing the planet, plastic bags seem like an easy one to fix. But we can’t even do that.

“I’m not really involved
 in that many things,” says Don Williams, who runs the website stopthebagban.com. But when his hometown of San Jose, California, passed a plastic-bag ban three years ago, “I thought, This is crazy. I mean, a bunch of us were pulling our hair out.” So Williams started a mailing list for people who were interested in opposing the bag ban, which he says now boasts 175 to 200 people. On his site, Williams tackles and dismisses all the arguments in favor of banning, charging for, or otherwise regulating plastic bags. In part, he does this because he’s a fan of the convenience. But mostly it’s because he’s suspicious of what he calls “a greener-than-thou kind of thing,” which, for him, is fueled by “the typical elitist attitude that looks down on the common people.” In his experience, the common people want free plastic bags.

“You could hire ten to 20 workers for a fraction of the money they spend on advancing these bans,” he says, “and their whole job every day could be to go pick up, like, five bags each.” Problem solved. He also notes that plastic bags may be a litter concern, but there’s all kinds of garbage in his local creek. “There’s mattresses, there’s tires — so are we banning mattresses? Are we banning tires? They found a dead body in the creek. I wanted to write to my councilmember to say, ‘Hey, you need to pass a ban on dead bodies.’ ” For Williams, living in bag-free San Jose (where it turns out there is, in fact, an existing ban on the deliberate creation of dead bodies) must feel a bit like serving in the Resistance while living in Vichy France. I asked him what he uses to transport his own groceries, even as he fights the good fight online. He explained that he orders custom-made plastic bags by the boxful, each with ONE SAFE CLEAN CONVENIENT CONTRABAND PLASTIC BAG printed on one side and I CHOOSE PLASTIC printed on the other. “I take them to the grocery store. I hand them out to people in line. It’s like contraband. They look around — they’re like, ‘Are we allowed to use these?’ ” As for his wife, she uses reusable bags.

Among all the organizations with various homespun names like Bag the Ban and the American Progressive Bag Alliance, Williams’s is the rare one that isn’t funded, in some way, by the plastics industry. Understandably, plastic-bag manufacturers have reacted swiftly to efforts to regulate bags — after all, even the cigarette, a product with no practical purpose that has been proved to kill people who use it, is not facing calls for an outright ban. So lobby groups like the American Chemistry Council have fought back with anti-bag-ban messaging of their own, as well as aggressively pursuing lawsuits, funding referendums, and sponsoring petitions to overturn local bans already in place.

Here are a few of their arguments. Plastic bags, they claim, are more ecologically friendly than paper — because paper bags weigh more, require more resources to create and transport, and take up more space in the landfill. (Paper bags don’t, however, pose the same litter risk, have a much shorter life span, and are recycled at a much higher rate.) Reusable bags, they say, are both unsafe and unpatriotic — because bacteria might collect in them and many reusable bags are manufactured in China. Also, they contend, a mandatory fee on plastic bags — such as a five-cent fee introduced in Washington, D.C., in 2010 — is a tax grab that disproportionately affects the poor. (One paradox of the pro-bag position is having to argue that plastic bags are a valuable commodity that people nonetheless aren’t willing to pay a few cents for.) Plastic bags, they argue, are 100 percent recyclable — at least in theory. However, most cities, including New York, don’t accept film plastic (i.e., plastic bags) in their existing curbside recycling programs, and bag-return programs at stores are not very successful. Even by the industry’s own optimistic estimate, just 15 percent of bags are returned for recycling. (Environmentalists typically put this figure at lower than 5 percent.) Which means at least 85 percent of a trillion bags are left to find their way in the world, over their subsequent 1,000-or-so-year life span.

For Mark Daniels, the chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance and a senior vice-president of sustainability at Novolex, one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags in the world, the argument is even simpler. “The environmental-activist community has basically hijacked the debate and used this as their fundraising tool,” he says. So, for example, environmentalists might show you a sad photo of a turtle eating a shredded-up plastic bag (which it likely tried to eat because it mistook the floating bag for a jellyfish), but can they tell you exactly how many turtles actually die from eating plastic bags? And how many dead turtles should mean that you can’t tote your groceries home in a free plastic bag? In addition, he’d like you to know that Novolex recently spent $30 million on a new plant in Indiana specifically designed to recycle plastic bags. Novolex also sends out educational DVDs to places like Walmart, where there is now an initiative called “Think 6” that encourages baggers to place six, not four, items in each bag. “We’re very much trying to create an equilibrium,” Daniels says, “so that the amount of plastic bags is the correct amount.” Now, if only there were a way to agree on what the “correct” amount of plastic bags might be.

The nadir of the plastic 
bag’s reputation, at least in certain circles, may have occurred on Wednesday, July 18, 2007, at eight in the morning. That’s when 15 Whole Foods in the New York area offered a $15 reusable canvas tote, commissioned by an environmental activist group and designed by Anya Hindmarch, that read I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG. The bag presented a canny opportunity for performative rectitude: a reusable bag that publicly announced its own virtue. Naturally, it was a huge hit.

Only 20,000 such bags were offered for sale in New York, so they were snapped up and soon appeared on eBay for prices up to $300. People miffed by the bag’s haughty sentiment began sporting competing bags, including one that read I AM NOT A SMUG TWAT. Soon, gleeful reports surfaced that the Hindmarch bags had been manufactured in China by low-cost labor and weren’t organic. Hindmarch counterclaimed that the carbon cost of shipping the bags overseas had been offset by the purchase of carbon credits. In hindsight, l’affaire Hindmarch illustrates the confusing backlash that can greet any well-intentioned ecologically minded gesture. The conundrums — carbon credits! China! — can lead to a kind of ethical paralysis, which might well send you running back to your familiar plastic bags. Or running to stick your head inside a plastic bag.

A more significant death knell for the plastic bag, however, occurred earlier, in August 1997, when a seafarer named Charles Moore discovered what’s come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s a collection of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that is, depending on whom you ask, the size of Texas, or two Texases, or the entire continental USA. The patch is notable because, on the one hand, it’s hard not to be alarmed by the phrase “an island of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the ocean.” On the other hand, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t actually like what most people envision. It’s not an enormous floating mound of Tide bottles and toothbrushes. It’s barely visible from a boat. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Unlike paper, which biodegrades, plastic photodegrades, meaning it breaks down into ever-smaller pieces when exposed to UV rays in sunlight. So the so-called Garbage Patch is really more like a soup made up of millions of tiny flakes of plastic, floating just below the surface of the water, soaking up toxins, and looking to fish an awful lot like food.
Plastic bags, to be clear, are not a big part of the garbage patch — they’re too insubstantial to wind up way out in the middle of the ocean. But the news of the patch was a turning point in how people think about plastics and the planet — it felt like a bill coming due. It’s like the Garbage Patch of Dorian Gray: an ugly, previously hidden illustration, dragged down from the planet’s ecological attic, of the true cost of our perfect plastic lives.

Kathryn Garcia, New York’s
 commissioner of Sanitation, is talking about carrots and sticks. “We’re doing a lot on the promotional side,” she explains, sitting at the large board table in her office downtown. “We’re working with City Hall and the mascot Birdie [the city’s GreeNYC mascot], giving out Birdie’s Bags. We’re trying to use carrots — but occasionally, to get everyone to change, we need something more.” Garcia is currently in the middle of a fight to bring some sort of plastic-bag action to New York. She is less professionally concerned with plastic bags in faraway oceans than she is with the 1,700 tons that New Yorkers throw away each week. New York pays an estimated $10 million a year to transport single-use bags, both plastic and paper, to out-of-state landfills — and that doesn’t cover the money spent to pick them up as loose litter. Recently, I visited Manhattan Beach, a sliver of sand off Sheepshead Bay, early on the morning after Fourth of July weekend, and, sure enough, were I an alien, I’d have assumed the beach was some sort of plastic-bag farm, ready for harvest.

As a question of civic policy, the plastic-bag debate would seem to be a perfect one for contemporary New York, seeing as it resides precisely at the crossroads of bloodless Bloombergian autocratic problem-solving and de Blasian firebrand progressivism. Yet New York has continually lagged behind other cities and countries on the issue; for example, China, which is not exactly thought of as in the environmental vanguard, banned free plastic bags in 2008. That’s the same year that Mayor Bloomberg floated the notion of a six-cent fee on grocery bags, but it went nowhere. Currently, several City Council members are pushing for a ten-cent fee on plastic bags. But no legislation has been enacted. Bertha Lewis, a consultant to Mayor de Blasio and the head of the Black Leadership Action Coalition, wrote an editorial for the Gotham Gazette arguing that the bag fee “is counterintuitive, and hurts the working class and small-business owners that make our city strong.” Lewis was later asked by Capital New York to account for the fact that her foundation has received payments from the American Progressive Bag Alliance — that’s Mark Daniels’s group — and she responded, “That’s insulting. I think it is absolutely just the most egregious character assassination ever.” Elsewhere, the argument has fallen along predictable sectarian lines: “Ten Cents a Bag? That’s About Right,” opined the Times. “Trash This Tax,” bleated the Post.

The plastic-bag debate as a whole, though, highlights how New York exists as a kind of paradox: a self-consciously progressive city (certainly by national standards) that nonetheless, through political inertia or a weirdly proud embrace of civic dysfunction, has a difficult time supporting progressive policies. We, the populace, have proved both forward-looking and stubbornly resistant to change. Thanks to the once-divisive smoking ban, we’ve managed to live happily without our romantically smoke-clogged restaurants and bars for more than a decade. Yet a new bike lane can spark a fistfight. This is the city, after all, in which countless bureaucrats toiled tirelessly to rid the subways of graffiti, yet now we sit around and recall it wistfully. New York can seem at times like a vibrant laboratory for social progress, at others like a giant sclerotic machine that’s barely able to function, let alone improve. And the most insignificant detritus of daily life can take on hallowed status: Reusable versions of both the iconic deli Greek coffee cup and, yes, the I ♥ NY plastic bag are enshrined at the MoMA gift shop. The plastic bag, the throwaway coffee cup — not to mention overflowing garbage cans, sky-high rents, crammed subways, grinding commutes, subway rats, sidewalk roaches, and noxious smells — are all familiar by-products, even totems, of our romanticized go-go New York lifestyle. We don’t solve these problems; we survive them. We’re 8 million harried people crammed together. We can barely make it through the week, let alone be expected to save the world.

Recycling is a happy word.
 And recycling, in theory, seems like a cheery civic virtue designed for our common betterment, but, in practice, it’s a business like anything else. Sims Municipal Recycling, which contracts with the city to handle our recycling, has its main facility on the 30th Street Pier, near Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Above the ceaseless clatter of cans falling through three stories of sorting machines, Thomas Outerbridge, the facility’s general manager, stands on a catwalk and points at what’s below: “That I can sell, and that I can sell,” he says, gesturing toward piles of scrap metal and bundles of reclaimed plastic bottles. Dirty plastic bags, however, are hard to sell. Since plastic bags are so insubstantial, they’re just as likely to get tangled up in the recycling facility’s machinery, causing expensive shutdowns, as they are to be bundled up and processed to be sold. Their current worth, he says, is “somewhere between two cents a pound and landfill.” (As for so-called biodegradable plastic bags, they’re kind of a nonstarter, at least for environmental purposes, because they typically end up in a landfill, and nothing effectively biodegrades in a landfill, not even food.)

It’s true that clean plastic grocery bags are theoretically recyclable, just like any other plastic resin, but, as Outerbridge says, “ ‘theoretically recyclable’ doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s either a market for it or there’s not.” As a recycled product, film plastic is very hard to process (because it’s so light) and very hard to clean. This is why, technically, you’re not supposed to include plastic bags in your curbside recycling in New York.

It’s also theoretically possible to build an entirely new recycling infrastructure that recycles clean plastic bags — witness Novolex’s $30 million recycling plant. But anti-bag activists argue that the only reason companies like Novolex promote bag recycling is that it makes consuming plastic bags more palatable and helps assuage the guilt consumers feel. It’s not just activists who say this. In an interview with Susan Freinkel for her 2011 book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Roger Bernstein of the American Chemistry Council explained why the plastics industry has invested so much in promoting recycling. Concerns around plastic products, he says, can be divided into “fear issues” and “guilt issues.” And recycling, he says, functions as “a guilt eraser.”

Jennie Romer is a lawyer
 from California who moved to New York three years ago hoping to work pro bono with the city on plastic bags. A few years back, she’d gotten involved in San Francisco’s fight to ban bags, and she’s since become, somewhat accidentally, the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law. Her anti-bag activism has earned her backlash from both sides. “I get a lot of tea-party-esque emails, but I also get pushback from environmentalists who say, ‘There are bigger things to spend your time on.’ But this is a thing I chose because it is small. Something like climate change — that’s really daunting. With this, you can see a difference.”

For New York, Romer favors a ten-cent fee. “With a ban, you’re saying, ‘You can’t have this thing anymore,’ ” she says. “But with a fee, consumers are presented with a choice: ‘Is it worth it to you to purchase this bag?’ ” In Ireland, after the government imposed a 15-cent fee in 2002, bag usage fell by 94 percent — in part because, as a reporter for the Times noted, “Plastic bags became socially unacceptable — on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.”

That last point may hint at another coming shift. Whether New York adopts a ban, a fee, or does nothing — in short, whether plastic bags go the way of smoke-filled restaurants or are temporarily snatched from the brink of oblivion like Bloomberg’s detested Big Gulps — the plastic bag’s day as a mundane everyday item, thoughtlessly ignored to propagate under our sinks, is likely over for good. Being the person at the grocery store digging out the goofy reusable knit shopping bag or that weathered WNYC tote no longer marks you as a hapless hippie but as a thoughtful citizen, or at least not a total weirdo. In fact, it’s the guy in line handing out custom-printed plastic bags that read I CHOOSE PLASTIC who now seems like the social outlier. When Washington introduced its fee, psychologists who studied it concluded that what caused consumers to reject plastic bags was not the added cost but the sudden social stigma of being the one person who still takes the plastic bags. The smoking ban, for example, would have failed miserably if they’d tried it ten years earlier. Ten years later, though, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

*This article appeared in the July 13, 2015 issue of
 New York Magazine.

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Lawsuit Challenges State Law on Sick Time, Employee Benefits

A coalition, including members of the state legislature and city councils, has filed a lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of a new law set to take effect later this summer. House Bill 2579 precludes cities from regulating “nonwage compensation,” which it defines as items including sick and vacation pay.

The bill was a response to a 2013 measure, which tried to block cities from setting their own “living wage.” Attorney General Mark Brnovich agreed not to enforce that law, since it conflicted with the voter-approved minimum wage measure.

Tempe Councilwoman Lauren Kuby is one of the plaintiffs in this new suit. She said Proposition 202, approved by voters in 2006, allows cities to regulate wages and benefits. "To me, worker protection is fundamental to the general welfare and the public health of our city," Kuby said.

A coalition, including members of the state legislature and city councils, has filed a lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of a new law set to take effect later this summer. House Bill 2579 precludes cities from regulating “nonwage compensation,” which it defines as items including sick and vacation pay.

The bill was a response to a 2013 measure, which tried to block cities from setting their own “living wage.” Attorney General Mark Brnovich agreed not to enforce that law, since it conflicted with the voter-approved minimum wage measure.

Tempe Councilwoman Lauren Kuby is one of the plaintiffs in this new suit. She said Proposition 202, approved by voters in 2006, allows cities to regulate wages and benefits. "To me, worker protection is fundamental to the general welfare and the public health of our city," Kuby said.

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Arizona Bill Would Ban Local Limits on Plastic Bags

While other places have turned to bans and fees to discourage the use of plastic bags, Arizona is headed in a different direction. On Thursday, the State Legislature here sent a bill to the governor that would ban the bans, with supporters seeing it as a way to protect businesses and consumers from a potential hodgepodge of regulations.

The bill would prevent cities and counties from regulating the “sale, use or disposition of auxiliary containers,” which include single-use disposable bags, boxes, cans and bottles. It would also prohibit requirements for businesses to report energy use.

State Senator Nancy Barto, the bill’s sponsor and a Republican, said that “excessive regulation on containers creates more work and cost for retailers and other businesses — and leads to higher consumer cost and a drag on economic growth.” She added: “Municipalities acting on their own to implement these mandates run counter to the state’s goal to overcome Arizona’s sluggish job growth and economic stability.”

The only city to carry out any such rule is Bisbee, southeast of Tucson, which banned single-use plastic bags and requires a 5-cent charge per paper bag.

Lauren Kuby, a city councilwoman in Tempe, cited estimates that 50 million single-use plastic bags are used each year in the city and that less than 5 percent are recycled. She said the city faced costs from litter, as well as from the damage the plastic bags caused to machinery at recycling facilities.

In a state where leaders often rebel against federal oversight, Ms. Kuby accused legislators of taking away the decision-making authority of local officials. “It’s a very ironic thing, and it’s poor public policy,” she said.

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Tempe voters opt for change with Kuby, Schapira

Via The Arizona Republic

Tempe voters opted for change Tuesday.

In an apparent Election-Day upset that will shift the political make-up on the City Council, Tempe voters opted for challengers Lauren Kuby and David Schapira for two of three seats in a crowded field that included two incumbents, seeking their second and third terms.

Tempe also became the first Arizona city to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender city workers as voters approved a historic charter change. U.S. military veteran status also becomes a protected class from employment discrimination.

Proposition 475 carried overwhelmingly, according to unofficial results. With its passage, any future Tempe City Council would have to go back to the voters to abolish gay workers' rights.

Challengers Kuby and Schapira led Wednesday by wide margins with all precincts reporting and a portion of early ballots counted, and appear to have won their seats outright in the primary. Provisional and early ballots turned in at the polls still are being tabulated.

"I'm so grateful for all the community support I've received," Kuby said. "My mentor, Harry Mitchell, always told me you can only succeed in politics if you have a whole lot of people who want you to succeed."

Their victories mean that at least one of the incumbents — Robin Arredondo-Savage and Shana Ellis — has been voted out of office.

Arredondo-Savage, Ellis and challenger Dick Foreman were less than 1 percentage point apart for the third council seat, which might go to a November runoff. Despite the tight race, Foreman conceded in an e-mail late Tuesday.

Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian, not seeing re-election, opened the door to new faces on the council.

"I lost. I say 'I' for a very good reason, because you all supported me and gave me the chance to represent you," Foreman said. "And while there are still votes to count and the difference is razor-thin between inside or outside the runoff, I can't forecast any changes as these votes come in."

Arredondo-Savage and Ellis had nabbed primary endorsements from Councilman Corey Woods and Councilman Kolby Granville. It may be more difficult now for the sitting council members to choose between the incumbents, should the race for the third seat go to a runoff.

Matt Papke and Ernesto Fonseca trailed Foreman and appear to be out of contention.

Voters made their picks on who will lead the university town amid an era of sweeping growth, urban development and, evidently, voter dissatisfaction. The shift could mean a stronger focus on education, transparency and accountability.

Kuby, who works as a community-engagement and events manager at Arizona State University, has made sustainability, homelessness, veterans issues and community partnerships central to her campaign.

Schapira, a superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology and a Tempe Union High School District governing board member, said he ran primarily improve education-and-schools partnerships with the city.

He has said that the Tempe council must ask more tough questions on behalf of voters, rather than rubber stamp staff and development proposals.

"We're very pleased and it's the result of hard work, the kind of hard work we'll invest into the council and the people of Tempe," Schapira said.

The next City Council will face difficult decisions about high-rise development, a wave of college-student apartments and commercial construction that would continue to add density to the landlocked city. Those elected may determine a route for Tempe's modern streetcar, which has drawn support from the business community and concerns from fiscally conservative council members and residents.

Proposition 473, 474 and 476 also appeared to pass by overwhelming margins.

Prop. 473 changed the charter to add two alternate members to the City Council-appointed Merit System Board. The board's duties include reviews and recommendations on Tempe's personnel rules and regulations, and hearing employee appeals related to dismissal, demotions and disciplinary pay reduction or suspension.

Prop. 474 required notice of claims or demands, typically tied to a legal suit, to be filed within 180 days of an injury or damage. This change would align charter language with state law, which allows for the 180-day period.

Prop. 476 created gender-neutral charter language, replacing "Councilman" with "Councilmember;" "Councilmen" with "Councilmembers;" and "he" with "he/she" and "his" with "his/her."

This is the first primary election Tempe has conducted in August. Past elections were in the spring. The shift had left candidates wondering whether a boost in new voters would change dynamics, making it more difficult to get elected outright in the primary.

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ASU Graduate KELSEY SCHILLER Backs Kuby

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ASU Law Student DANNY ENGLESE Backs Kuby

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Tempe Leadership's Curtis & Linda Ritland Back Kuby

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