Attorney alters his suit over plastic bag ban in San Luis Obispo County

An attorney suing the county waste management board over its adoption of an ordinance that would ban plastic shopping bags at most stores in San Luis Obispo County has withdrawn one of his reasons for the litigation but has left the other intact.

Stephen L. Joseph, representing the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, said challenging the “yes” vote of board member Greg O’Sullivan “will impede and substantially slow down efforts by other parties to invalidate the ordinance.”

The other “cause of action,” the contention that the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority should have completed an environmental impact report before voting on the ordinance, remains in place.

It is scheduled for a hearing March 22 before San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall.

The board adopted the ban Jan. 11 after a heated four-hour meeting at which scores of people testified pro or con. Hundreds of others also made their feelings known through letters, phone calls, emails and personal contact.

Under the terms of the joint-powers agreement that created the waste management authority, the 13-member board needed eight votes to approve or reject the ordinance. It received eight in favor.

Each of the five county supervisors has a vote, as do representatives of each of the seven cities in the county.

O’Sullivan’s position is unique. He represents all 10 of the smaller community services districts in unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County, from Nipomo to San Miguel.

However, he comes from only one of them, the Templeton Community Services District. Templeton’s board of directors, on a 3-2 vote, opposed the ordinance.

O’Sullivan said his yes vote was on behalf of the “citizens of the county,” which goes beyond the Templeton district. It is that vote that Joseph’s suit initially challenged.

The ordinance, set to take effect in October, allows retailers to distribute paper bags, but only if they charge customers 10 cents apiece.

Environmentalists have been aggressively persuading local governments to adopt similar ordinances and have succeeded in dozens of cities and towns across the United States. In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the free distribution of plastic bags.

Other cities and counties across the country have followed, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Jose, Los Angeles County, and Washington, D.C. Smaller cities such as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Carpinteria and Fairfax have enacted some form of ban or limitation on the use of plastic bags.

Joseph characterizes the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, formed in 2008, as a nonprofit environmental organization. His critics have called it a front for the plastics industry, which he denies.