We Have Set a Dangerous Precedent in Croton

The following letter was published in this week’s issue of the Gazette.

To the editor:
Recent questions by Joel Gingold (The Gazette, Oct. 25/31) and Brian Powers (The Gazette, Nov 8/14) remain unanswered by our Croton Board of Trustees and Village Manager. That is unfortunate, because they both raise an issue which is at the heart of what makes us a community.

Human institutions are governed by human beings, and that necessarily introduces human flaws into our institutions. But we should aspire to create laws that are an expression of our better nature.

A fundamental tenet of our civic community is that all are equal before the law. When I was growing up, the eighth grade social studies curriculum in New York State included discussion of bills of attainder and why these were prohibited in the Constitution. Apart from the narrow issue, there was a broad principle being taught: the right of every citizen to be treated the same as every other citizen.

 The front of the Supreme Court Building (photo by UpstateNYer/Wikimedia)

The front of the Supreme Court Building (photo by UpstateNYer/Wikimedia)

When we discriminate against our neighbors, that is wrong. When our government passes laws that discriminate, that is an affront to our core values as a community.

Reasonable people in Croton can (and do) differ on the substantive issue of how to reduce plastic use in our community. But I have yet to see anyone explain why a law should be drafted so as to only apply to 2 businesses out of more than a hundred.

At the outset, I was supportive of the efforts to reduce bag usage because I did not realize that the movement was discriminatory. It is one thing for the Croton Climate Initiative to now support passing a law that singles out 2 specific businesses to the exclusion of all others. The CCI is not an instrument of the municipality, and it is free to petition our elected officials to go after 2 specific businesses. I disagree with the CCI on this, but I respect their right to express their view.

I also understand that CCI may be taking the “half a loaf is better than none” course of action. Normally this would be a reasonable path, and one which we all take in our daily lives. But in this particular instance, the outcome is discriminatory. We have been assured that the scope of the law may be expanded in the future, but that does not change the fact that we are today passing a law designed to affect only 2 Croton businesses.

Our municipal employees and elected officials are not acting in their private capacity, and as such they should be conscious of more than mere political concerns. No matter what law is passed, there is going to be a segment of the Croton electorate which is unhappy. I don’t minimize the desire by politicians for adulation, but there are times when even a politician must take a firm stand. Telling your constituents that everyone must live by the same law is one of those times.

Throughout the process of passing this bag ordinance, we have been told that it is a law to eliminate plastic bag use in Croton. That is not true. It is a law to eliminate plastic bag use at 2 particular locations, and nowhere else. At no time has the Board of Trustees considered a bag law which would apply equally to every resident and business owner in Croton.

I regret that our Board of Trustees chose not to do outreach and education, and I find much in Mr. Gingold’s list of suggestions that would have made sense from both a pragmatic and communitarian perspective. I hope in the future that our village officials work on building consensus before drafting major legislation.

Regrettably, I think that Mr. Powers may be correct in speculating that this is another feelgood initiative by our Board of Trustees. As a political strategy, creating an “us-against-them” framework is a well-worn (and usually successful) path. Having just 2 targets is a smart tactical move; proof of which is the elevation of Shoprite’s attorney Jay Peltz into the position of Croton Scrooge.

The downside to the bete-noire approach is a lack of logical coherence: if all plastic bags are bad, why is a plastic bag from Shoprite or CVS so uniquely bad that it alone must be the target of the full force of the municipal power?

Croton’s Board of Trustees has chosen to use its legislative power in a discriminatory fashion. Regardless of what your position is on the underlying issue, we all should be troubled by the actions of our village lawmakers.

I understand that achieving tangible improvement in the environment is not nearly as satisfactory as a raw demonstration of power. And what is more raw than ramming down a law which proves that some are more equal than others in Croton, with the Board of Trustees picking which are favored and which are disfavored?

Engaging in a lengthy public process which has been discriminatory throughout, culminating in a law which is specifically written to target 2 businesses not in favor with the Board of Trustees, we have set a dangerous precedent in Croton.

Croton’s Board of Trustees has chosen to use its legislative power in a discriminatory fashion. Regardless of what your position is on the underlying issue, we all should be troubled by the actions of our village lawmakers.

Paul Steinberg

Croton-on-Hudson