April 04. 2017 5:42AM

Portsmouth councilors postpone vote on plastic bag ban

Union Leader Correspondent

A number of people turned out Monday night to express their opinions on a proposed plastic bag ban in Portsmouth. The council postponed making a decision on the ban after a public hearing. (KIMBERLEY HAAS/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH — City councilors decided Monday night to postpone a vote on a proposed ban targeting carry-out plastic bags typically used by chain grocery stores and pharmacies.

Fred Rice, a Hampton resident who served as a three-term state representative, spoke during a public hearing about the "practical" as opposed to "philosophical" impacts of the ban.

"You’re probably going to have a lawsuit if you do this," Rice said. "This ban discriminates against some businesses, but not all. That’s a big problem."

Rice said the stores that use the thin plastic bags do so for economic reasons, and the ban would drive up costs for those retailers.

"You are meddling in private business," Rice said.

Councilor Bradley Lown said he appreciated the arguments against the ban, but he can’t agree that people have the "Live Free or Die" right to choose plastic bags.

"We can’t smoke in restaurants. We can’t drive as fast as we want to. We don’t live in a vacuum," Lown said.

He said, if passed, the ordinance would likely not be challenged legally.

Prior to the city council meeting Monday, councilors were updated on the status of HB 481, which would give municipalities the authority to prohibit the use of carry-out bags. The New Hampshire House Municipal and County Government Committee voted the bill inexpedient to legislate by a vote of 14-6 earlier this year.

The bill went to the floor of the house March 9, where it was voted inexpedient to legislate by a vote of 189 to 147, according to Portsmouth City Attorney Robert Sullivan and Assistant City Attorney Jane Ferrini.

The council had the legal department reach out to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and the Waste Management Division to ask whether they could regulate carry-out bags through their solid waste ordinance. DES refused to take a position on the matter.

Sullivan and Ferrini said the legal department discussed the matter with members of the Attorney General’s Office.

"The state was asked to act as a defendant in the case to seek a judicial resolution of the issue. The state declined," Sullivan and Ferrini wrote in a memorandum to councilors.

They argued that any ordinance should be postponed awaiting further developments from the Legislature.

The decision to postpone the vote was passed 6-3. The issue will not be brought before the council again before being examined by Portsmouth’s city manager.