GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 16, 2013

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Spotlighting issues when debate is on ground floor

Why did my newspaper do that?
Ray Lamont

---- — It will be several weeks before the town of Manchester gets the chance to adopt or reject a potential bylaw limiting or banning the use of those little plastic grocery and convenience store bags with handles.

Before any such proposal becomes law, the town’s selectmen — in conjunction with Manchester’s municipal law firm, Kopelman and Paige — will have to finalize its wording for the Town Meeting warrant. Next, the warrant article must withstand any number of potential amendments at Town Meeting, then it must gain the approval of town voters who show up that night at Manchester Essex Regional High School.

So, given its fairly preliminary status, one might wonder why we would present a Page 1 story outlining all aspects of the proposed bylaw this early — before the warrant is even finalized, and before any specific wording of a plastic bag ban is in place.

Why would your community’s newspaper do that?

Because it’s not the mission or duty of your community newspaper to wait until something is officially announced — and it’s certainly not our duty to wait until a proposal becomes finalized before we let you know about it. Our goal is to let you know about what proposals or plans are in the works in our communities when we know about them — so that any such issues or potential new laws can be up for discussion, not just in Town Hall meeting rooms, but on the street corners, in the parks, and — perhaps especially in this case — in the aisles of local stores and supermarkets.

Let’s face it, the best way to generate honest, open discussion when it can make a difference is to open that discussion before any proposal gets too far advanced — and that was our idea in getting out a story about Manchester’s plastic bag proposal this week.

While the potential bylaw remains in its preliminary stages, it is frankly a little farther down the proverbial line than many others. In bringing the petition and its signatures forward for the town warrant, town resident Gary Gilbert already has it boiled down to bar only the distribution of thin-filmed, single use, plastic bags mostly used at convenience and grocery stores; it would not, for example, target trash bags or plastic produce bags.

For what it’s worth, Gilbert and his backers – who include the students’ Green Team at Manchester Essex Regional High School —have also drawn up a slate of potential fines. If advanced and approved as is by voters, the bylaw would authorize police officers to enforce the ban with a fine of $50 against any store or other vendor on the first offense, $100 on the second and $300 on a third of subsequent offense. And Gilbert, recognizing that a shift to distributing only paper bags may be costly to businesses, is suggesting that vendors might want to charge a 5-cent surcharge on paper bags, with the idea that they can be reused or returned, perhaps like today’s plastic bottles.

That’s a lot of food for thought, if you’re a Manchester resident — or even if you’re not, given that state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, has filed legislation that aims to ban the distribution of plastic bags, mostly by large-scale retailers, across the state.

Should the town go for perhaps banning more plastic bags under a new ordinance? Are the fines too hefty? Too soft? Should any such law also target customers carrying plastic bags from home onto Manchester’s beaches, for example, or tossing them into town trash receptacles? And finally, should Manchester look to go down this road at all?

Those are all questions to be weighed by officials and residents alike as Manchester finalizes the wording for its town warrant, and as residents think ahead to going to Town Meeting to vote. The time to start thinking about those questions isn’t on the eve of Town Meeting — it’s now.

That’s why we didn’t want to wait until this bylaw petition inches closer to reality; we wanted you to know about it and all of its components now, when it can help you make this important decision.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.