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Real City Matters

Join us Tuesday night for a discussion about municipal ethics in Toronto

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politics

Good Idea or Not, the Bag Ban Came About in the Wrong Way

Council's decision was impulsive. The hard work is yet to come.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mlostracco/2400289177/"}Bitpicture{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

What city council did the other day seems almost like magic. They cast some votes, and now all our plastic shopping bags will disappear on January 1 of next year.

Except, in reality, government isn’t that easy. Creating the ban was an impulsive move that will necessitate months of work by civil servants as they try to figure out exactly how to implement the thing. And the scary part is that even council doesn’t know what the outcome will be.

Some commentators are holding Mayor Rob Ford responsible for the suddenness of the ban. They say his lack of leadership and his ill-advised decision to push for the elimination of the five-cent bag fee were what led to Wednesday’s surprise vote. Even if that’s the case, it’s hard to fathom an outcome like this. Things don’t usually work this way.

The motion by Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) that brought the ban into being was a 30-word-long addendum to the day’s debate over the future of the five-cent bag fee. For comparison, here’s a bag-ban ordinance that was approved by Seattle’s city council in December.

Don’t bother reading it if you’re not a giant municipal-politics dork. The essence is this: it’s a few pages of text that describe in detail exactly how the ban will work. It specifically excludes produce and bulk food bags from the ban, and creates a five-cent charge for recyclable paper shopping bags. It also sets forth penalties.

When Seattle’s city council voted on their ban, they had all of that information in front of them. They knew exactly what they were voting on.

Toronto city council, meanwhile, has absolutely no idea what the final bag-ban bylaw—which they’ll have to approve on some future date—will look like. They voted a significant change in the life of the city into existence sight unseen. At best, that’s irresponsible.

There is even some question as to whether the ban is legal. If council had brought the measure forward in a more organized way, they would have known that in advance, too.

The usual procedure for adopting a bylaw as significant as this one is lengthy. City staff send a detailed report to one of city council’s committees. The report contains an expert analysis of the matter at hand. In the case of the bag ban, there probably would have been a survey of other cities that have implemented their own bans, a legal opinion as to whether the ban would hold up in the face of a court challenge from bag manufacturers, and some recommended implementation points (that is, how and when to institute the ban). Committees also hear presentations from members of the public. They’re good forums for consultation with residents and business owners.

Los Angeles, whose city council voted for a bag ban in May, followed exactly that procedure. Only after months of careful consultation with city staff, politicians, residents, and businesspeople—not to mention celebrity endorsements—did they finally vote “yes.” (You can see the paper trail here.)

Toronto’s city council did none of that.

Whether or not the bag ban is a good idea is something we’ll be debating as a city for months to come. But this much, at least, is clear: the amendment that brought the ban into existence wasn’t good governance. It was a bunch of hand-wavey crap.

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