Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Councilors Debate Legislative Bills on Plastic Bags, Wireless Transmitters

Members of the Birmingham City Council expressed concern Tuesday that two bills in the state Legislature would continue to whittle away the city’s home rule.

The bills in question, HB346 and SB264, would remove local governments’ regulatory powers by prohibiting them from restricting use of plastic grocery bags and compelling them to allow the installation of wireless communication antennae, respectively. At Tuesday’s meeting, the council passed a resolution opposing the latter bill.

The bills, according to District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, would “basically take away the city’s ability to impact some very important issues.”

“I certainly don’t want the state Legislature preempting our ability to regulate something that has a direct impact on our community,” he said.

Plastic Bags and Other Containers

HB346, sponsored by Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, prevents local governments from attempting to regulate or prohibit use or sale of plastic bags, though its language is broad enough to encompass other “auxiliary containers,” which includes disposable and reusable materials designed for “transporting, consuming, or protecting merchandise, food, or beverages from or at a food service, manufacturing, distribution, processing, or retail facility.” Plastic straws would be covered by the bill, as well as bags, cups and bottles made of various materials.

O’Quinn said he was concerned the bill would negatively affect the city’s ability to create recycling programs and combat litter, which often consists of such containers. “We have to expend city funds and all sorts of city resources to get litter off our streets,” O’Quinn said. “This is something that has a profound impact on quality of life in the city of Birmingham and we need the capacity to regulate it.”

Earl Hilliard Jr., Mayor Randall Woodfin’s senior director of governmental affairs and a former member of the state House of Representatives, told councilors that the bills “would supercede any local ordinances.”

“Yeah, we need to push back on that,” O’Quinn replied.

Hilliard also warned that the bill could set a wider-reaching precedent. “Even if you think it doesn’t matter, what it’s doing is eroding the police powers of the municipality and you do not want to start (down) that slippery slope,” he said.

Supporters of the bill, however, has said they want to avoid having a patchwork of laws across the state, with some areas allowing particular types of bags and containers and other areas banning them, which would be expensive and confusing for businesses.

The bill and a mirror bill in the Senate have passed a committee and are awaiting votes on the House and Senate floors.

Wireless Transmitters

The council did not take any official action against HB346, but it did against SB264, a bill that would authorize the “installation and deployment of small wireless facilities and poles on public rights-of-way” and limit local governments’ authority to interfere with or regulate their installation. The bill, sponsored by Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would allow communications companies — cable operators, wireless providers and telecommunications carriers, for instance — to mount antenna on existing or replacement polls, ostensibly to boost wireless signal and reception.

Though the companies are required to submit applications to local governments, the bill restricts the reasons for which governments could reject those applications. Governments, for instance, are allowed to adopt “aesthetics requirements” for those antennae, though they must be “no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments,” and they must be “objective and published in advance.”

Even then, the city would be able to reject applications on aesthetic grounds only “if the denial does not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of wireless service.”

Hilliard told councilors that “the majority of municipalities are against this legislation” because it removes governmental oversight from the installation of those antennae. “The city won’t be able to limit where (new antennae are placed),” he said. The legislation would benefit companies such as AT&T and Verizon, he said, which “have a lot of resources” attempting to push the legislation through.

Lobbyists for the mayor’s office are “trying to do our best to stop it right now,” he added, noting that revisions were an unlikely solution. “The original bill is so bad that there’s no way to truly amend it,” he said.

Woodfin’s office has not responded to repeated requests from BirminghamWatch for his office’s legislative agenda.

The council voted to approve a resolution opposing SB264, saying that it placed “unfair regulations on municipalities/neighborhoods throughout the state of Alabama.”

The bill is awaiting action in a Senate committee.