Erich Mische saw the trash heap at 10th and Wacouta streets in St. Paul as a symptom of a larger problem.
Since December, clothes, syringes and other waste — remnants of a homeless camp — sat at the corner on the edge of downtown. St. Paul staff members said they repeatedly called the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the property, and asked them to clean it up. But the trash remained.
When Mische heard about the months of inaction, he rallied neighbors and family members and spent more than five hours on Saturday and Sunday cleaning it up.
On Saturday, he took about 50 bags of trash to an official dump site. The site was closed Sunday. Frustrated, he thought of an alternative for the additional two dozen bags.
"If City Hall is not going to come get it, we'll bring it to City Hall," he said.
He left a heap of trash bags at the doorstep of City Hall.
"That hazardous waste site is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with government today," said Mische, a St. Paul resident and longtime top aide to former Mayor Norm Coleman.
It doesn't matter who is technically responsible for the land, Mische said, "You are all government. You're all paid to fix problems."
The city evicted people living in an encampment there in December and notified MnDOT about the waste left behind, said Department of Safety and Inspections spokesman Robert Humphrey. The state agency is usually responsive, he said, but this time they were not.
The city cannot afford to clean up state property, Humphrey said, so officials left it.
"Garbage tends to breed more garbage and the site kept getting worse," he said.
MnDOT spokeswoman Christine Krueger said the first report she's aware of came in March 24, and the agency will look into the situation. She urged residents not to clean up such sites on their own. MnDOT hires outside contractors who have the proper equipment and training to deal with hazardous waste, she said.
Tens of thousands of people drove on the freeway next to the trash every day, Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes said, and he is sorry it was left there for so long.
"By no means does this send the right message to our residents and our visitors," he said.
Cervantes said city officials have checked with MnDOT to ensure they have the right contact information to report such problems in the future.
St. Paul city staffers also said MnDOT had assured the city they would clean it up on Tuesday. This came after city staff had recently complained to high-level officials at the agency about the waste.
Mische had not heard about the Tuesday cleanup when he and other volunteers gathered this weekend to clean it up.
Mische said he texted Mayor Chris Coleman and his City Council member about what was going on. Neither responded and no one from the city came to help, he said.
No fines or fees
On Monday morning, city officials were reviewing whether to fine Mische for illegal dumping, Humphrey said, but shortly before noon they made a decision. "Per Mayor Coleman, there will be no fines or fees," Humphrey said.
Coleman sent a message to Mische on Twitter Monday, thanking him and the other volunteers for the work.
"The garbage piled up in downtown St. Paul was unacceptable. This does not meet our standards," Coleman said in a tweet, and urged others to turn out at a citywide spring cleanup planned April 22.
Mische, who has been involved in politics for decades, used to be a White Bear Lake City Council member. He shoveled residents' sidewalks there when the city's plowing efforts fell short. But such efforts never drew as much public interest as this weekend's cleanup, he said.
The heap of stuff left at the former encampment was likely "the tip of the iceberg," Mische said. He asked people to contact him if they know of other waste that has been left sitting out.
He will rally his neighbors and bring his trash bags.