Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With overwhelming public support, members of the Missoula City Council on Monday gave final approval to a resolution urging the state Legislature to hand back local control on a number of issues, including a community's authority to regulate plastic.

The primary interest lies around single-uses plastics such as straws, stirrers, polystyrene containers and bags. Other states have regulated such plastics but under House Bill 407, adopted by the Legislature two years ago, Missoula and other interested Montana cities cannot.

“HB 407 is a ban on specific things they (the Legislature) don't want us to make decisions on,” said Lee Brown, a 25-year high-school teacher from Missoula. “We're asking to give local control to communities so they have the ability to maintain a clean and healthful environment in the state of Montana for future generations.”

Advocates of the measure pointed to other toxins government has regulated including tobacco and asbestos, the latter once viewed as a “wonder material” to the detriment of millions of people and their health.

Those who spoke Monday accused the Legislature of hypocrisy given its frequent criticism when Washington, D.C. intrudes on what Montana's conservative leaders see as their terrain. Local control has been a GOP mantra for years, though some are now questioning the sincerity of that argument.

“Governments regulate harmful substances in the environment all the time,” said Megan Thornton, a Missoula mother of three. “Regulating plastic pollution and its impact on human health, species and the environment is no different and falls squarely in their roll.”

The Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 407 in 2021. It was billed as a “ban on bans,” a single act that impacted cities across the state and their ability to govern locally based on the demands of their constituents.

Two years later, Missoula and other cities are now pushing to regain some of that control to regulate local issues like zoning, housing and plastic regulation. In its resolution, the Missoula City Council is urging the Legislature to repeal HB 407 if it fails to pass legislation of its own banning single-use plastics.

“The scientific proof is pretty obvious and irrefutable that plastics are a huge hazard to our environment, our waterways and to us as individuals,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “We're the body that's closest to the people. To take away our right to engage in the conversations and deliberations in our community is an overstep of the Legislature.”

Local Control a dying GOP philosophy

The issue of plastics aside, local officials have become leery of a state Legislature that on one hand argues local authority when it comes to congressional reach but on the other hand infringes on local control when it comes to Montana's cities and counties.

Regulating plastics has been on the City of Missoula's radar for years, and other Montana cities have expressed similar interest. But with HB 407 in place, doing so isn't possible.

“This is a good step forward, and it really does go to the issue of local control,” council president Gwen Jones said of Monday's resolution. “There are many communities in America that have taken this step, and Missoula could easily take this step forward. The thing about local control, we on council can build in flexibility as we need to. We can craft a good product. The Legislature is a different beast. It's fast and furious.”

Missoula had the opportunity to pass such legislation nearly four years ago when it began exploring potential ordinances or voluntary programs that would ban or limit single-use plastic bags. But it took no action, blaming the pandemic as the reason.

At the time, 349 cities across the country had already implemented such policies, and Missoula was about to join them. One study estimated that a single-use shopping bag has a 12-minute lifespan but will take up to 1,000 years to decompose depending upon the environmental conditions.

But despite the known risks to both humans and the environment – and the force of local support – council members Sandra Vasecka and John Contos opposed the measure. Contos hasn't said why but Vasecka said she watched a documentary that affirmed her position.

No businesses have stepped forward to oppose the resolution.

Vasecka said she “went down a rabbit hole” researching the issue on the Internet and cited a source she couldn't remember. She used the program to back her vote. While Missoula is far from Miles City, both geographically, philosophically and in population, she believes the state needs "uniformity."

“I don't know if it was a documentary, but it was some form – I cannot remember – I was going to take notes during it,” Vasecka began, adding that the city's desired authority would create chaos for businesses.

“I do want to continue the conversation about plastics. But I'm not going to support this because I believe in state uniformity. But I really do understand the frustration and the concern for the future.”