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Local Governments Setting California Policy Agenda

Heal the Bay/ flickr

California voters may eventually decide whether the entire state should implement a plastic bag ban, as more than 130 cities and counties have already done. But this story isn't about whether a bag ban is good or bad. It's about how we started talking about a ban in the first place.

San Francisco first banned the bags in 2007. Mark Murray is the Executive Director of Californians Against Waste. He says since then, pursuing bag bans on a local level has become a strategy. In fact tackling issues at the local level is a tactic Murray has used regularly over the last 25 years with other issues.

"We used it the beverage container recycling law, bottle bill deposits," he says. "We've used it on fast food packaging and banning polystyrene. We've used it on electronic waste."    

It may seem a daunting task to pursue a policy change in 58 counties and more than 480 cities in California. Actually, Murray says it's easier than working with the state government.

"You don't have two different houses. You don't have an executive and legislative branch," he says. "Generally for most city councils in California, you're dealing with anywhere from five to nine local elected officials whose objective, first and foremost, is taking care of their community and their constituents."

Murray's group isn't the only one to take the local first approach. Requiring pharmaceutical companies to pay for drug disposal, paid-sick days, gay marriage, all of these issues were those acted on first at the local level. Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom was involved with many of them when he was Mayor of San Francisco, often one of the first cities to adopt untested policies. He agrees local government is less about politics and more about getting things done.

"Cities are laboratories of innovation," he says. "And the capacity at the local level to innovate, the entrepreneurial spirit. Less tribalism in terms of the politicization of issues. It's not a Democratic plan to clean up graffiti or a Republican plan. There's just an initiative to clean up the graffiti and clean the streets."

But sometimes groups bypass the state not because they want to, but because it's necessary. The ACLU of Northern California is taking the local approach in an attempt to regulate law enforcement use of surveillance technology, like drones. The ACLU's Will Matthews says local law enforcement agencies can get federal money to buy the equipment, leaving the state out of the equation. He says the ACLU has developed a model ordinance that would require local government approval for such purchases.

"We recognize that on some level all politics are local," he says. "And that sometimes the best ways to effect change really do happen on the local level."

Matthews says the ACLU's ordinance is getting traction in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Mark Murray, who spearheaded the plastic bag ban, says new policies often begin in liberal Bay Area locations before moving into more moderate places like Alameda or San Mateo Counties. And he says eventually there's tipping point at which state government takes notice.

"I would says that, increasingly, Los Angeles County is kind of like a bellwether in terms of is this a mainstream policy? Is this a policy that’s ready for prime time in terms of state wide?" he says.

But the local route to state policy is getting more complicated as the players become more sophisticated. Murray says he's seeing more local officials eager to make a mark on state policy. And he notes his opposition is increasingly seeking to influence local outcomes as well.   

Copyright 2015 Capital Public Radio