By JASON ARMSTRONG
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii County has joined its two Neighbor Island counterparts in outlawing businesses' long-standing practice of providing free plastic shopping bags at the checkout line.
"I signed it," Mayor Billy Kenoi said Tuesday regarding one of his most-anticipated actions since becoming the county's chief executive a little more than three years ago.
Kenoi, who is attending the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., waited until Tuesday's deadline before approving the bag-reduction bill the County Council passed last month.
The new law won't take effect for a year, however, which still will be too soon for many shoppers.
"He got a lot of calls asking him to veto it," said Managing Director
William Takaba, who is serving as acting mayor until Kenoi returns.
In a two-page letter explaining his reasoning to council members, Kenoi said he heard valid arguments on both sides of the issue, noting comments leaned toward a veto.
A frequent surfer, Kenoi acknowledged that plastic bags can become unwelcome litter and also threaten marine mammals that mistake them for food.
However, Kenoi said he also agrees with bill opponents who feel charging for plastic bags, education and voluntary recycling are better solutions than government mandates for addressing littering issues.
More shoppers have switched to reusable bags, while charging for plastic bags could help businesses financially and provide money for cleanup programs, he added.
"Yet, this bill holds the promise of keeping our island clean, healthy and safe, and we need to finish the job," Kenoi told lawmakers.
Several island business owners, including at least one who has voluntarily stopped providing customers with plastic bags, have complained that replacement paper versions cost twice the price and take up more storage space.
Despite those economic realities, both Maui and Kauai counties implemented similar bag-reduction laws last January.
"Our initial response was great," Mike Miyamoto, deputy director of Maui County's Department of Environmental Management, said last November.
"The SWD (Solid Waste Division) investigated 16 businesses, with all businesses coming into compliance once contacted, and only one warning letter issued," according to the results of a survey Maui's DEM sent Aug. 31 to the Maui County Council.
Hawaii County's law affects only plastic shopping bags distributed at the checkout counter; garbage bags, those available in the produce section of supermarkets and packaging material are excluded.
Also, it won't take effect until Jan. 17, 2013, according to the bill lawmakers approved by a 5-3 vote Dec. 21.
After that, businesses may sell plastic shopping bags for an additional year without violating the law.
The delayed implementation is intended to ensure store owners don't get stuck with unused inventory, said Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann, the bill's author.
"I applaud the mayor's decision," Hoffmann said Tuesday afternoon. "It is a step, I think, in getting a handle on an issue that future generations will be thankful that we took this step."
Hoffmann's persistence and willingness to compromise, along with a change in the council's membership, helped secure the bill's passage.
Similar legislation from Hoffmann failed 5-4 in February 2010. But that year's election saw the ouster of three incumbent lawmakers, resulting in a different council leadership that could consider Hoffmann's replacement bill since it was introduced during a new term.
As they had done previously, Hilo Councilmen J Yoshimoto, Donald Ikeda and Dennis Onishi opposed the bill. Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong abstained due to a conflict of interest. Yagong manages a local supermarket chain, which he has said would be affected "tremendously" if its employees can no longer give plastic bags to customers.
That left just enough supporting lawmakers to pass the bill, but one short of the six needed to override a veto, which was an option available to Kenoi.
In an effort to win the administration's support, Hoffmann last February granted its request to remove penalty provisions and a requirement that the Police Department enforce them. Under the original bill, a business that violates the law could have been fined up to $100, while a third infraction within a year would have triggered a maximum $500 penalty.
"I wanted to make sure that the administration is fully in sync with this," Hoffmann said when the council gave initial approval to his bill Feb. 16 and then held regional public hearings to gather input.
Hoffmann's approach resulted in gutting the enforcement provisions. Instead, the amended version calls for the Department of Environmental Management to provide "education and enforcement," while also establishing penalties within 180 days of the law taking effect.
Kenoi pledged that the DEM will form a "working group that will include a variety of viewpoints" to implement the law by the mandated deadline.
Public hearings will be held before the new rules take effect, he said.
"I don't want to see anybody be penalized," Hoffmann said Tuesday.
The law serves as an important milestone in the county's efforts to achieve "zero waste," Kenoi said in his letter to lawmakers.
"In the end, this bill is not about plastic bags, politics or the Hawaii County Council. It's about protecting our beautiful island. While I may have preferred a slightly different version, I will sign Bill 17, Draft 2 because it is about the values we hold as a community to provide a positive future for our children," added the father of three.
Email Jason Armstrong at jarmstrong@hawaiitribune-