For the past several months, thousands of St. Paul residents have railed against the city’s new system of organized trash collection — in letters, phone calls and on social media — saying it’s either too expensive or provides too little flexibility for property owners. More than 5,500 people have even signed a petition demanding the system be put to a citywide vote.
It appears that’s not going to happen.
On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council voted 6-1 to keep the repeal off the ballot. City Attorney Lyndsey Olson advised the council that a referendum is preempted by state law and would be an unconstitutional interference with a contract.
The city’s five-year contract with haulers legally trumps any demand for a referendum. The organized trash collection plan, which city leaders say reduces truck traffic, standardizes rates and eases wear and tear on streets and alleys, is sticking around for a while.
That’s not what trash plan opponents wanted to hear.
“I understand they want to listen to the city attorney,” said Erik Solis, a North End resident who opposes the plan. “But I think at the same time, they should listen to the people.”
Council Member Dan Bostrom, the lone vote against the resolution, said: “Why have a process for a referendum if people are going to be told at the end that it doesn’t count?”
Last month, opponents delivered a petition to Ramsey County election headquarters with more than 6,400 signatures, of which more than 5,500 were deemed valid. That should have been enough to prod the council to put the system to a vote in 2019, opponents said.
Much of residents’ angst has been sparked by the city requiring all properties from single-family homes to fourplexes to have a hauler, a requirement that’s caused costs to spike for those residents who used to share a cart with a neighbor or who arranged to shed their garbage some other way. Others say they oppose the plan because it doesn’t provide enough low-cost options for people who don’t produce enough waste to fill even the smallest available cart collected every other week.
The City Council reached an agreement last November with a consortium of 15 haulers to standardize rates, pickup days and neighborhood assignments. The contract limits neighborhoods to a single garbage pickup day with a single hauler, a move city leaders say will cut pollution and wear and tear on city streets and alleys. It also sets rates based on cart size and whether there is weekly or biweekly pickup.
Now, it seems, that same contract prevents the city from putting the plan to a vote. State law does not allow it, city officials said. David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota, said they might be right.
“The City of St. Paul may be within its legal authority to refuse to place the initiative on the ballot,” Schultz wrote in an e-mail from Russia, where he is teaching this week.
While the state Supreme Court in June ruled that a citizens group in Bloomington could challenge that city’s organized trash collection plan by seeking to amend the city’s charter, Schultz said, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last month that the group’s efforts to put the plan to a vote “was illegal due to the fact that there were existing contracts for hauling in place.”
That appears to be the case here, Schultz said. He added, however, that the Court of Appeals decision in Bloomington may not be the final word as the Supreme Court could again weigh in.
City Council members invited opponents to help guide the city as it looks for ways to improve the program. Officials will meet with the consortium in January to go over what is working and what is not.
“We value your strongly held opinions and your hard work in reaching out to thousands of St. Paul residents to ensure that they are heard,” Council President Amy Brendmoen said. “We want you to work with us in improving the current program.”
Council Member Dai Thao said opponents could help advise the city on what to do at the end of the current contract, including a potential ballot question seeking public input on any future trash program.
“It is our intention not to foreclose public input, but to use today’s vote to invite the public into the process moving forward,” Council Member Jane Prince said.
Alisa Lein, one of the organizers of the petition drive, said people are disappointed that they aren’t being heard. While Lein did not say what her group’s next step will be, its website — stpaultrash.com — mentioned a possible lawsuit.
“None of us wants to go through a court battle,” she told the council. “It’s trash.”