The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled for a group of Bloomington residents that sued the city after it adopted organized trash collection without putting it up for a vote.
The ruling, issued Wednesday morning, was a victory for Hands Off Our Cans, a group that had opposed the collection system before it was started. It holds implications for home rule charter cities across the state by reminding elected officials that citizens have the right to bring forth policy changes even if officials disagree with them, said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.
"It effectively says that the citizens are on an equal playing [field] with the City Council in terms of their ability to initiate and move [local] legislation," Schultz said.
In June 2016, the city rejected a petition from Hands Off Our Cans to amend the city's charter and put garbage collection on the ballot, arguing that the process was controlled by the Minnesota Waste Management Act.
The group sued the city, but lost in district and appellate courts. It appealed to the state Supreme Court last December.
In his opinion, Justice David Lillehaug wrote that the Waste Management Act doesn't pre-empt the process that cities may use to adopt organized trash collection. "The statute describes only the minimum steps that a municipality must take to organize collection. It is not an exclusive process," Lillehaug wrote.
"Put another way, a municipality is free to add steps to the process so long as they are authorized by other law."
The lower court decisions ruled that the residents' lawsuit had disregarded the environmental and aesthetic benefits of adopting the program. But Lillehaug wrote that state law didn't advocate for one particular method of collecting trash over another.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the Court of Appeals, which will now review other issues in the case that it had not addressed. The status of the residents' petition will remain unclear until then.
Bloomington city officials on Wednesday expressed disappointment with the court's decision. "The opinion deals with process and resolved only one of three issues presented to the courts," City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said in a news release.
The city release said that organized collection of garbage will continue "for the foreseeable future" and that the issue won't be on an upcoming ballot "at this time."
Joel Jennissen, the leader for Hands Off Our Cans, said the court's ruling affirms the power that residents have to petition and have a greater say in the decisions of local government.
"It speaks to what citizens' rights are in a charter city," Jennissen said. "Organized trash collection was just the particular vehicle in this case."
The ruling gives home rule charter cities more authority at a time when cities and the state are in deadlock over decisionmaking, Schultz said. "I don't think it was a political decision, but it has political implications," he said.
Home rule charters are "mini-constitutions," as Schultz put it, that grant cities certain powers as long as they don't conflict with state law. There are 107 cities in the state with charters and about 40 of them allow residents to propose ballot initiatives, he said.
St. Paul, which has a home rule charter, is expected to switch to organized trash collection in October. A resident there sued the city last month, claiming the system illegally benefits people who have more garbage.
Bloomington launched its organized trash system in October 2016, taking upon itself the coordination of trash collection rather than having residents contract individually with haulers.
It currently has a contract with a group of six haulers that pick up trash in one section of the city each day of the week.
City officials said they switched to organized collection to reduce the number of garbage trucks driving on local roads and to mitigate air and noise pollution.
Greg Joseph, an attorney for the residents, said environmental considerations had nothing to do with their lawsuit.
"This has to do with people's right to bring legislation," he said. "Whether you agree or disagree with organized collection, whether you think it's good or bad for the environment, is really a different question."
Jennissen, who opted out of organized trash collection and discards his own garbage and recycling, said he likely would have participated in the organized system if the city had put it to a vote of residents.
He said he's interested in seeing what process other charter cities might now follow on the organized trash question.
"I think other cities will probably take a deep breath before they get on the path," he said.