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Westminster pushes back plastic bag ban, set to open certain recreation facilities

Budget concerns were prominent on the Westminster Mayor and Common Council’s agenda at its most recent meeting, and a special meeting was scheduled for Monday, May 18 at 7 p.m., when councilmembers are expected to vote on the yearly budget. It can be viewed live on the city’s Facebook page.

But the mayor and council also voted to push back their plastic bag ban ordinance’s starting date for a full year and discussed logistics for when recreational facilities and restaurants can reopen.

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Plastic bag ban

The “bag ban” restricts businesses from distributing single-use plastic bags under certain circumstances. It was originally slated to start July 1, but the council voted Monday, May 11, to push it back one year to July 1, 2021.

Westminster was the third municipality in Maryland to adopt a plastic bag ban.

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The postponement was motivated by the effect on businesses whose operations will likely still be affected by the coronavirus come July 1.

The council also considered that many consumers and retailers are not comfortable with bringing reusable bags into stores at this time, which partially eliminates one of the alternatives to single-use plastic bags.

Mayor Joe Dominick said it would be important to get the word out about the change as soon as possible because many stores are already considering the logistics of transitioning away.

The council considered whether the postponement should be six months or a full year. Council President Gregory Pecoraro, who drafted the ordinance, was in favor of six months. He said that many Westminster business had already switched voluntarily to alternatives like biodegradable bags.

Outdoor recreation plan

The council discussed a plan for city-owned recreation facilities like playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts, and the skate park after the governor relaxed restrictions on some outdoor activities. They submitted a plan to the Carroll County Health Department for approval.

The Health Department responded Friday morning and the city will move forward with opening tennis courts, pickleball courts and the Westminster Skatepark with a 10-person capacity and other safety measures.

The council went back and forth on whether to open basketball courts, but ultimately will not reopen them at this time, following advice from the Health Department.

If people were using the courts to exercise individually, or to play low-contact games like HORSE, the council was in favor of opening with signs posted against groups of more than ten and guidance not to play close-contact games. The council was also weary of dumping extra burden on the police department with having to enforce these rules an disperse people.

Police Chief Thomas Ledwell said the police department would not be overburdened by checking any of the outdoor recreation facilities, and were already doing regular checks at parks.

Outdoor seating at restaurants

The mayor and council were united in agreement that the city’s economic development resources should help restaurants create more outdoor seating for guests to be ready for when they can serve dine-in again.

Whether that is expanding existing patio space, or converting a few parking lot spaces to an outdoor seating area, the elected officials hoped the city could support them.

Council member Tony Chiavacci said a local restaurant owner reached out to him on the topic, making him realize what a good idea it would be. "As we move out of this, people are going to be more inclined to want to eat outside rather than be confined in a building,” he predicted.

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Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners hope that a return to outdoor dining can start sooner rather than later. Thursday, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3 asked the county to send a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, asking him to allow restaurants to open for dine-in with outdoor seating.

In his report, Dominick also expressed his support for an idea at the county level to suspend the fees for liquor licenses at restaurants. Some had said this was “cherry-picking” aid for restaurants who serve alcohol. Dominick said, on the other side, liquor license fees cherry pick restaurants that do serve alcohol. If this passed, the loss to Westminster’s share of the license fee would be about $12,000.

Audit

Outside auditors from Brown, Shultz, Sheridan, Fritz, CPAs presented on the audit of the city’s FY19 financial reports. They gave Westminster an unqualified opinion, meaning they believed the financial records were clean.

The report on the audit is available in the council packet for the meeting online at www.WestminsterMD.gov/AgendaCenter.

The auditors noted eight areas for improvement. In response to a question from Council member Ann Thomas Gilbert, Tammy Palmer, director of Finance and Administrative Services, said seven of the issues have already been addressed and one was in progress because it required employees to complete training.

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