We are turning a very interesting corner in terms of the manner in which we decide how and when legislation is necessary to achieve a social objective. Is it prudent to trust that people would actually act to do the “right” thing when given reasons and goals, or do we have to “… control every aspect of people’s lives … ” as was said in a recent council meeting? I am, of course, referring to the recent proposed ban over the sale, use and distribution of plastic straws in Santa Barbara. It seems there is practically no molehill that we, as a council, can’t turn into a mountain, but the major point here is not about straws.

Outreach efforts by the Community Environmental Council, Channelkeeper, and Heal the Ocean, as well as the city’s own environmental staff were incredibly successful. The hospitality industry is our largest single source of economic production and employment. They resoundingly responded by making the simple accommodation of providing plastic straws “on request only.” By most measures this problem was resolved through education and cooperation. Kudos to staff and our environmental groups.

But wait…our council decided that a hammer from above was superior to community cooperation and participation. The disabled, senior care, and medical communities protested the loss of what turns out to be a rather essential commodity. There are, if you read far enough into the legislation, exemptions available, but it seems unclear to what lengths a patient, client, or caregiver will have to go to acquire this device. Perhaps we can designate a new class of “service straws”? In the end, the day was won by council, thus earning a merit badge for environmental stewardship. Bully for us.

Why encourage social responsibility and cultural buy-in when you can simply legislate it?

Should we teach our youth to act responsibly because it is the “right thing” or should we only mention the consequences if they don’t?

My take is that we were voted in to lead, not dictate. I don’t discount the good intentions of my colleagues, but this moment was chilling and, I believe, serves to damage some of our other good efforts to encourage public participation. Let’s ensure that we include and listen to the folks who put us in office.

Randy Rowse is a member of the Santa Barbara City Council.


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