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David Scribner
Monument Mountain Regional High School students Olivia Jaffe, Grace Phair and Carly Terranova make a PowerPoint presentation at Great Barrington's annual town meeting May 7 in support of the ban they were proposing on single-use plastic water bottles.

Special town meeting set for recall vote on plastic water bottle ban

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By Thursday, Jul 12, 2018 News 24

Great Barrington — An effort to repeal the town’s recently passed plastic water bottle ban will get a full hearing when the matter is put before voters at a special town meeting next month. 

The selectboard voted Monday 4–0 (Dan Bailly was absent) to hold the special town meeting Monday, Aug. 6, at 6 p.m. at Monument Mountain Regional High School. The move comes after a petition was organized and filed to call for the special meeting to repeal the ban on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles approved at the annual town meeting in May. Click here to view the petition.

Town resident Laura Keefner, who had organized the petition, told the selectmen she would prefer a secret ballot over a simple show of hands, as is customary in most New England town meetings.

Town resident Laura Keefner, who organized the revote petition on the plastic water bottle ban, asked the Great Barrington selectmen Monday night whether it is possible to call for a secret ballot at the Aug. 6 special town meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“A lot of people in this town know that, when you stand up and raise your hand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for something, the person next to you is looking to see what you’re voting for,” Keefner said. “And I’ve had a lot of people who signed the petition ask me if it’s possible to have a secret ballot.”

Selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon told Keefner it would be possible to do so. The procedure for holding a secret ballot on a town meeting warrant item varies from town to town. In Great Barrington, if at least 20 voters at the town meeting request it, then a secret ballot can be held on a specific warrant item.

Keefner asked the selectmen for clarification on how much it would cost the town because, she said, “I’ve been taking real heat for this.” Bannon told her he did not have the figures in front of him but the cost depends on whether the town decides to advertise the meeting or simply send out postcards to voters. The board has opted to just send out the cards.

If the town had elected to advertise, then the cost of the meeting would have been approximately $4,000. Without the advertising, the bill will be closer to $2,500. The bulk of the cost can be attributed to about 15 hours of legal fees from town counsel, the town’s attorney who will attend the meeting. Click here to see a chart listing the expenses and sent to the Edge by town manager Jennifer Tabakin. 

The approval of the plastic water bottle ban from residents at the annual town meeting followed a lengthy and impassioned appeal at the annual town meeting from three Monument Mountain Regional High School students.  

They pointed to an array of research and data indicating the environmental problems associated with plastic in general, and the single-use water bottles in particular, because of the chronic infiltration of microplastic debris into the food chain. 

Single-use plastic water bottles for sale in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

Opposition to the ban sprang up even before the measure was passed by a margin of approximately 2–1. The new bylaw effectively bans the sale of single-use plastic noncarbonated water bottles of 1 liter or less in size within the town limits of Great Barrington. It will take effect May 1, 2019.

Great Barrington is the fourth town in the state and in the nation to pass such a law. After passing its ban on plastic water bottles, the town of Concord also enacted a bag ban in 2013 similar to the one in Great Barrington enacted.

Last year, a similar bottle initiative passed in nearby Sudbury and it even survived a subsequent repeal attempt initiated by the owner of a coffee house who insisted the water-bottle ban would hurt his bottom line and curtail his customers’ freedom of choice. The new law took effect this month.

The Great Barrington law was the brainchild of the environment committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, which gathered the necessary signatures to put the item on the warrant.

Keefner, several commenters on the Edge and on social media, and some merchants objected to the ban. They argued instead for enhanced recycling efforts. Keefner acknowledged that she did not attend the annual town meeting this year, in part because she was not aware of the proposed bylaw until a couple of days before the meeting. She assumed it would not pass and was later shocked to learn that it had.


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24 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Michael Wise says:

    Here is a clarification about whether and when town meeting action can be taken by secret ballot, repeating the advice I sent the other day to the proponent of the plastic bottle item at the upcoming town meeting.

    As moderator, I apply the procedures set out in Town Meeting Time, the “bible” of town meeting process for Massachusetts.

    The usual method of voting, on all matters, is by voice vote or by “division”, that is, raising a card to be counted, yea or nay. State law and town bylaws require secret ballot votes in a few cases, involving incurring debt or making financial decisions that vary from the Finance Committee’s recommendations. A change in the town bylaws is not one of these special cases.

    The town meeting may decide to change the method of voting on other matters, though. This is done by making an incidental motion during the debate on the main motion for which the change is desired. If someone wants the meeting to vote by secret ballot on a main motion, during the debate on that main motion that person would go to the microphone and make a motion like this: “I move that the vote on the main motion be taken by secret ballot.” That incidental motion can be made at any time during the debate; it is not necessary to wait until the end of the main debate. This incidental motion requires a second, it is debatable, and it requires a majority vote. If this incidental motion for a secret ballot is made and seconded, the meeting would then debate and decide the method of voting; after that issue is decided, the meeting could return to further debate about the main motion, before taking the vote on it.

    In principle, the moderator has discretion to call for a secret ballot on any item. My predecessor applied a rule of thumb that he would exercise this discretion if about 20 town meeting voters wanted a secret ballot. The “20 voters” reference is in the town bylaw about voting to override the recommendation of the finance committee; it is not a general rule about when secret ballots are taken.

    1. SC says:

      Thank you for that!

  2. Terry Cowgill says:

    Thank you Michael for that detailed clarification.

  3. SH says:

    I am an avid reader of the EDGE but have never commented on any previous issue. As a second homeowner I cannot vote here but I do appreciate the passion of the residents to protect our environment. I am baffled by the ban of single serve water bottles. It is the healthiest option we have to quench our thirst while on the run. The ban does not include soda, juice and sparkling drinks. Why not have recycling bins available in strategic locations?

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Recycling bins are clearly in evidence throughout the town, as well as at the transfer station and at markets. The sad fact is that many people are either too lazy or too unconcerned about the environmental damage caused by plastic to take the time to recycle. And it is important to keep in mind that single-serve water bottles are not what is being banned in Great Barrington; it is the sale of these bottles that will no longer be allowed. The townspeople who voted for the sale ban have no desire to prevent anyone from quenching their thirst by drinking water from 1/2 liter bottles….simply keep a few around the house and fill them from your tap or a gallon or larger bottle you keep in the fridge.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        If the ban is not overturned, you can simply buy the bottled water in any other surrounding town, like Sheffield

    2. Ellen G Lahr says:

      Greetings, and thanks for following GB news. The single serving water bottles in question are not recyclable in Massachusetts. Certainly there is a larger question on that matter but GB advocates believe this is a local step toward reducing plastic waste.

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        This comment by Ellen Lahr surely contains a typographical error. Not only are single-serve plastic water bottles recyclable in Massachusetts, other than paper, these bottles constitute the most significant recyclable by weight in the Commonwealth

  4. Jerry says:

    A secret ballot requested by the person who demands to know people’s full names in this website’s comment section!!! Haaaaaahaaaaaaaa! My sides, my sides!!!

  5. Beth Carlson says:

    I would like to note that “enhanced recycling efforts” are not a functional solution to the problem, no matter how many consumers improve their household habits, one of the real issues is that there is a glut of plastic to be recycled, and limited places that are able to recycle it. Actual changes in habits are necessary to limit the harm being done with the consumption of plastic.

  6. Steve Farina says:

    It is also interesting to note that a little over 30 signatures were gathered for the original petition to create the ATM Warrant Article 22, and nearly 10X that number were generated to call a Special Town Meeting to repeal it. My estimation is that there were less than 200 votes cast in favor of the Article at the ATM.

    1. Jerry says:

      I think you are going to see overwhelming support for the ban but don’t worry because you will have the last laugh when someone dies of thirst in broad daylight right on Main Street. The residents (and non-residents) of Great Barrington will have blood on their hands.

  7. Michelle Loubert says:

    Terry: Maybe I missed it, but you didn’t mention here that this “bylaw” has not yet been approved by the Attorney General’s Office which has, according to the AG’s Office, until August 7 to do so.

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      Michelle, thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t consider it to be terribly important because the feeling among the selectmen (and I agree with them) is that approval from the AG is a fait accompli since the bylaw is virtually identical to the one that was approved for Concord and Sudbury.

      1. Michelle Loubert says:

        Yikes! A bit “the cart before the horse!”

      2. Carl Stewart says:

        Terry—

        The question is not whether or not you consider approval of the proposed Great Barrington bylaw a “fait accompli,” but whether a Special Town Meeting can be held to overturn a law that isn’t in existence. The Special Town Meeting is, as I understand it, scheduled for August 6, one day before the deadline for Maura Healey’s office to act. In the unlikely event that the repeal vote is successful and the Attorney General has not acted by then, then won’t it simply have overturned a non-law?

      3. Terry Cowgill says:

        Carl, I don’t have the petition in front of me. It depends on how it is worded. If it says the signees are proposing to repeal the law, then you are correct. If it says they want to repeal the warrant item as passed at the ATM, then I don’t see a problem. My guess is it says the latter. Maybe Ms. Keefner could weigh in here.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      Perhaps the AG’so office will read the version of the Article which was passed at the ATM and see that the wording states “single use” to describe the water bottles. And, perhaps they will happen to go to the Town of Great Barrington Web site and see that the Town clearly documents the “second life” of all of the recyclable plasting products – thus making this a non-law being proposed.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        *plastic not plasting (auto spell correct is often more puzzling than some comments, lol)

      2. Joseph Method says:

        Steve, you’re getting into metaphysics here. It’s not a second use of the same bottle if you melt it down and make a new one!

      3. Carl Stewart says:

        Putting aside Mr. Method’s objection to your metaphysics, the fact is that only a very small percentage of plastic bottles are recycled to become “new” plastic bottles. Most of the recycling results in clothing, carpeting, insulation, and the like.

  8. Terry Cowgill says:

    Michelle and Carl, I have located a copy of the petition. It refers specifically to a bylaw that was passed and asks the selectboard to “hold a special town meeting for the purpose of voting to repeal this law (Article 22 per the final GB town warrant).”

    It does ask for a repeal of “this law,” but then refers specifically to the warrant article that was passed. It is probably a judgement call as to whether the wording would suffice if the bylaw is not approved by the AG by Aug. 6. My guess is the intent of the wording is clear enough to suffice for a repeal of the warrant article, but I can’t be sure.

    Click here to see the petition.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Terry—-

      Title VII, Chapter 40, Section 32 of the General Law of Massachusetts quite clearly requires approval by the Attorney General of any zoning bylaw. The Attorney General has 90 days within which to act, after certification by the clerk of the town of the bylaw. Inaction by the Attorney General within the 90-day period is deemed approval of the bylaw. Assuming that the Clerk of Great Barrington has complied with the filing requirements, then unless the Attorney General has approved the bylaw prior to August 6th, (the date of the Special Town Meeting), there is no law to “repeal.” Thus, any action taken at the Special Meeting will be a nullity if the Attorney General has not acted on the bylaw and her time to do so has not expired. Although I have heard that lawyers finish a close 2nd to dentists in most reviled professions, sometimes it makes sense to consult someone with adequate knowledge of the law. In this case, the time, energy, and money spent on this repeal procedure may turn out to have been a waste for all concerned.

  9. Michelle Loubert says:

    In law, wording is everything. Attorneys spend endless hours creating/reviewing documents to ensure legal accuracy. One misstated word in a legal document can change the entire outcome of a transaction. This issue is an example of that. PS Carl: I really like my dentist and my lawyer!

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