Opponents of St. Paul’s fledging organized trash collection system on Friday filed a lawsuit demanding that city officials respect thousands of signatures on an anti-trash plan petition and put it to a citywide vote.
The City Council late last year rejected the petition for a referendum on the plan, even though it had the necessary number of signatures, saying it was not appropriate to put it to a vote. Members of a group called St. Paul Trash and other opponents of the system have been raising money in the months since to fight the council’s decision. The suit, filed in Ramsey County District Court, alleges the council’s vote violates the city charter and that citizens were wrongfully denied a voice at the ballot box.
Bruce Clark, Peter Butler and Ann Dolan argue that the organized trash collection system must be suspended immediately until the “voters can make their voices heard on Election Day,” according to a statement by the group’s attorney, Greg Joseph. The lawsuit seeks to put the plan on the ballot in November 2019. Joseph represents the plaintiffs in a similar case in Bloomington that has recently been heard on appeal.
A call to City Attorney Lyndsey Olson was not immediately returned Friday.
But Alisa Lein, a leader of the St. Paul Trash group, said a lawsuit could have been avoided if residents had been told the details of the plan “from the beginning. It’s a huge change for the City of St. Paul and they should have done this a year, two years ago.”
For the past several months, residents have railed against the city’s trash collection system in letters, phone calls and angry posts on social media. More than 5,500 people signed a petition demanding the system be put to a citywide vote.
But the St. Paul City Council in November voted 6-1 to keep the repeal off the ballot. Olson has said a referendum is pre-empted 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, she said.
The City Council reached agreement in November 2017 with a consortium of 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 is already cutting pollution and noise on city streets and alleys. It also sets standard rates based on cart size and whether there is weekly or biweekly pickup.
Lein said she knows some people who prefer the new plan to the city’s previous system that had residents contracting on their own with haulers and saw multiple trucks hauling trash nearly every day of the week. But, she said, there have been so many problems — with customer service, with higher prices, with residents not being allowed to share carts or opt out of the plan — that giving residents a say in whether it moves forward is not too much to ask.
“A lot of the frustration could have been dealt with and we wouldn’t have been in this situation,” she said of her group having to sue to be heard. “I know a lot of people who are mad but like the idea of organized trash.”
Fundraising to cover legal fees continues, she said.
“This is not going to be quick,” Lein said. “We are taking on the City of St. Paul. It’s no easy task.”
James Walsh • 612-673-7428