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Pursuing the Truth

Columnist: Bill Meagher
May, 2011 Issue

Bill Meagher
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The saga of the Marin County plastic bag ban won’t go away. The county is being sued by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a San Francisco group that knows its way around a courtroom.

The organization with the ironic name means business, as the city of Manhattan Beach found out. The coalition sued the city in February 2011 because it adopted a ban on plastic bags without conducting or considering an environmental impact study. The coalition’s action was upheld by the state appeals court and is now being appealed to the State Supreme Court.

The coalition, a pro-plastic bag group, has brought the suit against Marin because the county refused to consider an EIR before passing its ban. The coalition is also unhappy with the county because the new regulation only calls for a nickel charge for paper bags.

Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is led by attorney Stephen Joseph, a former Tiburon resident who’s been called the “Patron Saint of Plastic Bags” by Time magazine. A native of England, the 50-something has successfully sued Kraft Foods as well as the Golden Arches over their use of trans fats.

Joseph is plenty media-savvy, too, and smart enough not to be too-closely associated with the plastic bag industry. The first thing one sees on the organization’s website is a disclaimer stating the coalition isn’t associated with or funded by the American Chemistry Council.

The lawsuit against Marin names Command Packaging, Crown Poly Inc. and Elkay Plastics Co., Inc. as members of the coalition. All three California companies are in the business of producing and distributing plastic bags.

The coalition has been called a lot of things in print, from a front organization for the industry to an environmental campaign group. Its website calls for environmental truths to be told regarding how plastic and paper bags impact the environment. It also calls for EIRs to accompany bag bans, along with higher charges for paper bags. The hook, of course, is that the coalition’s fight isn’t about the support or even the preservation of plastic bags. It’s about protecting Mom Earth. It’s also about the pursuit of truth. I figured Joseph and I would hit it off, since pursuing the truth is what I do for a living. And here was a lawyer dedicated to the same ideal.

Joseph, a former lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento (according to the California Secretary of State’s office, he worked for a short time for the Houston Group, a K Street lobby firm), has found an effective way to get the coalition’s pro-plastic message across by lobbying on behalf of the environment and against paper bags.

I wanted to chat with him but we were unable to come to an agreement on the terms of the talk. As someone who’s locked horns (if only informally) with the mouthpiece, I’d advise the county to strap in—it could be a bumpy ride.

Joseph, who’s spoken to the Bohemian, the Marin Independent Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, has an iron-clad ground rule: Before a journalist can use any quotes, they must be emailed to him for review in advance of being printed. He politely explained that this condition was non-negotiable and must be followed because he’d been burned by the media in the past. He also said there were legal concerns, what with the case pending at the Supreme Court as well as the new case against Marin. He said quotes can end up in court, and that wasn’t something he wanted to happen.

I told him those were very legitimate concerns and I understood his viewpoint. As luck would have it, it’s this magazine’s standing policy to have quotes sent to the quotee. The magazine would address his concerns, he needn’t worry about me emailing him. Alas, this was not satisfactory to the barrister.

I tried explaining the policy differently a couple more times, figuring I hadn’t communicated well. But my efforts were rewarded by Joseph merely repeating his own policy along with a suggestion that I call the magazine and tell it about our impasse—or that I simply do things his way.

We agreed to disagree and I suggested he at least let me fact check what others had written about him and the coalition. This uneasy truce lasted three questions, until Joseph told me he couldn’t tell me what his preference was for a description about the coalition without the email: “I can’t tell you that and have you quote me without you sending an email,” he said.

I felt like we were at loggerheads and thanked him for his time. He told me he couldn’t remember a journalist who was unwilling to follow his conditions and, once again, advised me to drop a dime to my editors.

At this point, I knew we were cut from different cloth. I’d never dream of telling him how to be a lawyer, but he seemed fairly at ease giving me instruction about doing my job. And while he wasn’t the first to make suggestions about what I should do (or even where I should go), he was the first to do it that day.

Maybe it was because it was St. Patrick’s Day and he hails from the U.K. and my ancestors were from the Emerald Isle. Maybe it was because it was a few ticks shy of 6 p.m. and I still hadn’t a tipple of Jameson. But I was done.

I politely parted ways with Joseph. Having failed in my search for the truth about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coalition, I went in search of a St. Patrick’s Day cocktail, a pursuit that was much more successful.

Bill Meagher is contributing editor at NorthBay biz. No lawyers or bags were physically harmed in the writing of this column. You can reach him at

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