A judge ruled Thursday in favor of St. Paul residents who sued to have the city’s organized trash collection system put to a vote, taking the city to task for what he called a violation of its own city charter.
Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro ordered that the system be suspended June 30 until voters can decide whether it should continue.
“It’s huge,” said attorney Greg Joseph, who represents three residents who sued the city. “It’s the right thing. We’re very, very happy.”
Last year, the City Council rejected a petition from residents to put the issue up for a vote, prompting some to file suit earlier this year asking for judicial intervention.
Castro was critical of the city’s actions and rejected its logic for denying the referendum.
The city’s charter allows residents to petition to have ordinances put up for a vote. Critics of the city’s organized trash system gathered 6,469 signatures asking that residents be allowed to vote on the ordinance governing collection, the judge said.
“… A city’s charter is, in effect, its local constitution,” Castro wrote. “… Here, there is no evidence in the record that the petition presented in October 2018 was deficient in anyway. [City leaders] concede that the petition was sufficient. Consequently, it was an improper exercise of power for the Council to refuse to place the Referendum on the November 2019 ballot.”
The city, Castro wrote, responded by arguing that the city charter was pre-empted by state laws, and that putting the issue to a vote would amount to unconstitutional interference in the city’s contract with a consortium of trash haulers.
“This Court finds that even if a substantial contractual impairment exists,” the judge wrote, “the important public purpose of ensuring that the constitution of a city is being followed and that the City Council is not infringing upon the clearly delegated voting rights granted to the people, justifies any alleged impairment.”
The city reached a five-year agreement in 2017 with a consortium of garbage haulers that standardized rates, pickup days and neighborhood assignments.
Residents were previously required to contract with haulers on their own.
“The City of Saint Paul has received the ruling on the Saint Paul trash lawsuit, and is assessing the impact it has for the City, and its residents,” City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said in a written statement. “We will continue to work with the consortium to ensure trash service continues for our 70,000 households.”
Alisa Lein, a leader of the group, St. Paul Trash, previously said while some people prefer the city’s new system, others reported problems with customer service, higher prices and residents not being allowed to share carts or opt out of the plan.
Castro’s ruling called for the city’s ordinance enforcing the trash collection system to be suspended on June 30, “thereby allowing residents sufficient time to obtain private solid waste collection services.”
“It’s inconvenient, maybe, but this is the law,” Joseph said.
Joseph’s clients — Bruce Clark, Peter Butler and Ann Dolan — had argued in their suit that the organized trash collection system should be immediately suspended until residents could vote on the issue.
Castro ruled that the trash collection system will be placed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, or, that the City Council can call for a special election before Election Day.
“The suspension of [the trash ordinance] will undoubtedly present an inconvenience to the City and its departments,” Castro wrote. “However, this inconvenience cannot justify the circumvention of the plain language of the City’s Charter and the right of the citizens to cast a vote.”
Joseph expects the fight to continue. “We anticipate that the city of St. Paul will appeal this,” he said. “You probably haven’t heard the last of this.”
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.