Discusses ban on foamware in county facilities
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
The Putnam County Legislature Rules Committee Monday night (July 21) moved ahead on plans to include prayers at legislative meetings, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which found that such invocations do not violate the Constitution.
The panel — formally, the Rules, Enactments and Intergovernmental Relations Committee — likewise discussed banning plastic foam dinnerware from county facilities, a change championed by District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra as an environmental and health safeguard but described by a county official as impractical because of (among other challenges) senior citizens with larcenous tendencies.
At a session attended by two of its three legislator-members as well as a majority of the rest of the nine-person legislature, the committee took no final action on either initiative. The legislature uses committee meetings to allow its members, including those not on the committee convening the meeting, to debate policy issues and refine drafts of laws.
Prayer at public meetings
Praying at county legislative meetings was suggested in May by District 9 Legislator Kevin Wright a day after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Town of Greece, New York, did not violate the First Amendment by opening meetings with prayers — even those mentioning Jesus Christ by name. Opponents of Greece’s practice had claimed in a lawsuit that the invocations favored Christianity; the critics did not ask that the prayers cease but that they be “inclusive and ecumenical” and refer to a “generic God” only.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that “rejected the theory that legislative prayer must be non-sectarian.” The justices also cited the tradition in the U.S. Congress and other elected bodies in commencing proceedings with a prayer. “As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution,” the Supreme Court stated, “legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”
Accordingly, the ruling said, the Supreme Court historically “has considered this symbolic expression to be a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held, rather than a first, treacherous step towards establishment of a state church.”
Despite the high court’s acceptance of even sectarian prayers at public meetings, when the Rules Committee took up Wright’s request the legislators said they want broad-ranging language, not prayers promoting a particular belief. Their suggestions included a prayer evocative of “non-religious meditation” and “more spirit-based than religion.”
Wright, a Rules Committee member, suggested that in a suitable prayer “we ask for divine inspiration to make sure that we make the proper decisions in the interest of our [constituents].”
District 2 Legislator Sam Oliverio, a candidate for county executive, recommended that “we move on this. I like the idea; I love the idea. It can’t be religion-specific,” however, said Oliverio, of Putnam Valley.
“I think our meetings need a little prayer,” concurred Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown.
Carl Albano, legislature chairman, also threw his backing behind the effort: “I think it’s a good thing.”
District 8 Legislator Dini LoBue, who heads the Rules Committee, promised “we’ll work out the details” and report back in August.
The idea of eliminating plastic foam food service items in county facilities came up earlier this year, but legislators postponed debate pending input from the Sheriff’s Department about the jail, and the Office of Senior Resources (previously, the Office for the Aging), which provides lunches at senior centers.
[Plastic foam dinnerware is often erroneously regarded as “Styrofoam” — a brand name — although not made of Styrofoam.]
Albano said the Sheriff’s Department stopped using foam dinnerware a few years ago and “it’s not an issue. I absolutely support it [abolishing polystyrene]. The Sheriff’s Department is already doing it. It works. When you think of the environment, it’s absolutely an issue.” He said exposure to chemicals in the foam can bring harm decades later. “We’re talking about our children,” he said. “It’s not going to make or break the county” to switch.
Scuccimarra observed that foam coffee cups “have a useful life of five to 10 minutes. After that, they’re in the environment 500 years” and their hazardous content “makes its way into our waterways.” Moreover, the foam components leach out when cups fill with hot liquids, she said. “It’s not only an environmental nightmare, it’s a health nightmare.”
Pat Sheehy, director of the Office of Senior Resources, said her office would have to acquire staff to oversee the type of dinnerware used by the sheriff, get dishwashers, and overcome a third obstacle — filching. “Our seniors sometimes supply their homes with the silver. In years past, they did it,” she said. “Silverware, cups, dishes, walk out the door. So that becomes an issue.”
“Just go [with] paper” dishes, Albano suggested.
Overall, Sheehy warned, her department’s costs could triple with a plastic-foam ban and “if that’s the way you want to go, you’re going to have to increase our budget.”
Wright opposed a mandate, favoring instead voluntary repudiation of polystyrene. “I think it’s good, but I think the good goes out of it when government says you must,” he explained.
The legislators agreed to continue their deliberations at an upcoming meeting.
Photos by L.S. Armstrong