I decided to run for the Chemung County Legislature in order to use my background and experience to try to make a difference for our community. Running in 2018 when many great economic development projects were beginning to take shape and most legislative candidates were expressing a desire to bring about meaningful change to the way local government does business was exciting and filled me with a sense of hope for what the Legislature might be able to do over the next four years.

Last year started a bit rocky, but the Legislature nonetheless was able to take on some important topics such as a deep-dive into ways the City of Elmira and Chemung County could collaborate for their mutual benefits, hard work with the County Executive’s Office to begin addressing major infrastructure problems at the Sewer District, and tough decision-making regarding Chemung County’s future financial picture that resulted in a unanimous vote for a property tax increase, something we recognized was unfortunate but unquestionably necessary.

However, over the past few months the Legislature has, in my opinion, been bogged down by a number of non-substantive (i.e. time-wasting) approaches to issues that are distracting from numerous very important matters facing our community.

Three of these approaches are outlined below.

Live-streaming

Chemung County Executive Chris Moss recently began live-streaming all executive branch meetings and has entered into agreements with organizations such as the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency to allow them to pay a fee in order to stream meetings from county-owned buildings.

All videos are archived on Chemung County’s website. The screenshot below shows how it appears:

I have been voluntarily live-streaming all meetings of the Full Legislature and Standing Committees to the Chemung County Matters Facebook page for over a year. Even though the sound and visual quality is not always great, the overwhelming response I have received from the public has been positive. The live-streams not only allow people to watch meetings when they are unable to attend, but also provide an opportunity for anyone to go back and hear exactly what was said at a meeting rather than rely on meeting minutes.

Chris Sherwood, founder and editor of the Elmira Telegram, recently circulated an online petition in support of live-streaming meetings of the Legislature that garnered 161 signatures and many comments:

Last year County Executive Moss applied for and received a grant from the United States Department of Homeland Security that covers the cost of hardware, installation and storage for live-streaming in Chemung County. In other words, the county’s budget is not directly impacted by providing this service for our community. County Executive Moss specifically invited the Legislature to participate in the live-streaming network, and he and others in his office drafted a set of rules and procedures the Legislature could adopt should it opt in.

However, the process of moving forward with live-streaming in the Legislature was stalled altogether until early February when Dave Manchester, the Legislature’s Chairperson, requested that legislators volunteer to sit on a committee to study the live-streaming issue.

At the end of this Monday’s Standing Committee Meetings, Chairperson Manchester explained that unless more legislators volunteered for the “Live-Stream” Committee, he would assume there is no interest in having the meetings recorded, apparently equating the desire to sit on yet another committee with the desire to provide streaming services to the public.

The discussion embedded below (staring with 4:06 remaining in the video) led to the formal creation of a “Live-Stream” Committee that will hopefully be able to work through this issue extremely swiftly so that we can move on to more critical issues of substance for the residents of Chemung County.

Term Limits

Last year Chairperson Manchester created a “Term Limit” Committee to study whether the Legislature should impose term limits on legislators and the county executive, and, if so, how the term limits would work. County Executive Moss has pushed for term limits on at least the county executive’s office since he was sworn in last year, and many legislators have publicly supported them.

The “Term Limit” Committee provided a copy of its final meeting’s Minutes to the Legislature ahead of its January 6, 2020, Personnel Committee Meeting along with a proposed Local Law that was placed on the Multi-Services Committee Agenda. The proposed Local Law called for a two-term limit for the county-executive and three-term limit for legislators. Both documents are embedded below.

However, a motion made by Legislator Bill McCarthy during the Multi-Services Committee Meeting on January 6th to adopt the proposed Local Law did not receive a second. As such, the measure failed to make it onto the floor of the Legislature where all legislators would have a chance to let their opinions be known, prompting a lively discussion of the matter beginning with 58:25 remaining in the video:

The matter was again discussed at the end of the Full Legislature meeting on January 13th beginning with 5:30 remaining in the video:

The failure to move the proposed Local Law out of the Multi-Services Committee is extremely unfortunate. Term limits were discussed extensively during the 2018 elections, resulting in a lot of discussion within the community. All legislators should have the opportunity to fully represent their constituents’ opinions on an issue like this. If the Local Law fails because it is not supported by a majority of the Legislature, we can all move on knowing each member of the community had a chance to have his or her voice heard.

Of note, many legislators have suggested placing the term limit issue on the ballot as a public referendum. However, New York law only allows counties to hold public referendums on some types of matters, and it seems quite clear that term limits are not one of them. The rationale underlying the limitations for referendums is that legislators are elected to make decisions for their constituents and should not have the luxury of deferring to referendums on controversial political issues when they do not want to take a public stand. In addition, referendums are costly and place additional strains on the Board of Elections.

The Term Limit Committee has been reconvened. It will hold public meetings on the following dates at 3:45 p.m. in the Conference Room (Room 510) of the Legislative Chambers located in the Hazlett Building (5th floor), 203 Lake Street, Elmira, New York:

  • Tuesday, February 25, 2020
  • Tuesday, March 3, 2020
  • Tuesday, March 10, 2020
  • Tuesday, March 17, 2020
  • Tuesday, March 24, 2020
  • Tuesday, March 31, 2020

I will live-stream meetings when I am able to attend. I unfortunately was unavailable on February 25th and do not have Minutes or an update about that meeting at this time.

Paper bag fees

As you probably are aware, New York’s plastic bag ban begins on March 1st. Under the new rules, stores will be prohibited from providing consumers with single-use plastic bags subject to a number of exceptions. The purpose of the ban is to address over-consumption of single-use products and encourage consumers to bring reusable bags to the store.

New York is not alone in addressing bag waste. An overview by the National Conference of State Legislators shows that California, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Oregon, Vermont, Washington DC and a number of cities across the United States have enacted similar measures over the past decade.

In addition to the plastic bag ban, New York is offering counties the opportunity to further encourage the reduction of single-use products by allowing them to adopt Local Laws that impose a 5 cent fee on consumers who do not bring a reusable bag and wish to purchase a paper bag.

Under the law, 3 cents of every paper bag purchase would go to New York’s Environmental Conservation Fund to help support projects such as purchasing land for the New York State Forest preserve, restoring historic sites, conserving farmland, restoring habitat, controlling invasive species, upgrading municipal sewage treatment plants, cleaning up waterfront property, creating public parks, and helping businesses develop ways to recycle material. The other 2 cents would remain in the county to provide reusable bags to low-income residents.

Currently Tompkins, Albany, Suffolk and New York counties have passed or are about to pass the paper bag fee, and many others will be considering measures to impose the fee early this spring.

To be clear, there is no requirement for counties to pass a Local Law imposing a 5 cent paper bag fee. To the contrary, New York state has given counties the opportunity to do so if they choose.

Moreover, many local grocery stores, including Wegmans and Jubilee, eliminated plastic bags ahead of the state ban and began imposing their own 5 cent fee to curb the use of single-use products. As Chemung County currently does not impose a fee, these retailers have chosen to donate the 5 cent fee to charities such as the Food Bank.

An article published in Supermarket News Magazine last year sets forth Wegmans rationale:

Last April, Wegmans announced that it would eliminate single-use plastic grocery bags ahead of the New York ban. The company said it aims to transition all customers to reusable bags, which it considers the best way to address the environmental challenge of single-use bags.

At stores where the county or municipality hasn’t already implemented a 5-cent fee for paper bags, Wegmans will charge 5 cents per paper bag. The amount collected from the paper bag charge will be donated to the local food bank serving each region.

By adding a charge for each paper bag, our hope is to incentivize the adoption of reusable bags and, in time, achieve our goal of eliminating all single-use bags,” (Jason Wadsworth, packaging and sustainability manager at Wegmans, said in a statement.) “This approach has proven successful at our two-store pilot. On average today, 20% of the bags used across all Wegmans stores are reusable. However, at our pilot stores in Corning and Ithaca, we’ve flipped that statistic so that only 20% of the bags used are single-use bags.”

Wegmans said that since introducing reusable bags in 2007, the company has focused on educating customers about their benefits, notably extra convenience. A recent companywide survey found that 95% of Wegmans shoppers already own at least one reusable bag, and 87% have three or more. Among regular reusable bag customers, the top three reasons for choosing them over single-use bags — beyond the environmental benefits — were sturdiness, handles and ease of packing, the retailer said.

Dozens of members of the community have spoken during the Legislature’s public comment period over the past year and contacted me personally to encourage Chemung County to adopt Local Law imposing a 5 cent paper bag fee. After listening to them and doing my own research, I submitted a draft Local Law Chairperson Manchester in November. A copy of it is embedded below:

In my opinion, the choice of private retailers to impose their own fees and give the money to charities moves this from a discussion of environmentalism to one of basic economics. Passing the Local Law brings at least 2 cents from each purchase back into the county to help low income residents, and helps provide resources to the Environmental Protection Fund, an entity that can be used to support local projects.

However, I learned today that the Local Law I drafted and submitted over four months ago will not even make it onto a committee agenda for a vote. Instead, I was informed that a resolution telling Albany we oppose New York’s paper bag program will be considered at next week’s Budget Committee Meeting. A copy of the resolution is embedded below:

At the onset, there is absolutely no reason to send a resolution such as this to Albany. As explained above, counties are not required to participate and will only pass Local Laws imposing the fee if they choose to do so. The state legislature would know a county does not want to impose a paper bag fee through its failure to impose one.

Further, the resolution states it does not wish to “increase the cost of living” for Chemung County residents. This argument is completely undercut by the fact that (a) some local retailers are already imposing the fee with the likelihood that many others will join in; and (b) the purpose of the fee is to push consumers away from single-use products altogether after which the fee to them would become obsolete.

Finally, and most critically, the decision to deny legislators the opportunity to vote directly on the proposed Local Law carries the same taint as the failure of the Multi-Services Committee to move the term limit measure onto the floor of the Legislature. In 2019 more people took time out of their evenings to speak in favor of the paper bag fee to the Legislature than on any other issue. Perhaps the proposed Local Law would not pass if a vote was taken, but political maneuvering like this is simply insulting to their efforts.

Town Hall Meetings

If you are interested in talking about these – or the far more substantive issues that matter for our community such as the Chemung County Nursing Facility, Sewer District infrastructure upgrades, potential changes to Medicaid reimbursement in New York and the effect they could have on Chemung County, Phase II of the Coleman Avenue project and various other environmental programs available to counties in New York – please join me for a Town Hall discussion tomorrow evening. It would be great to hear what you think.

Christina Sonsire