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St. Paul residents may have the right to petition for a referendum on their trash system, a lawyer for the city argued Tuesday before the state Supreme Court. But they are prohibited by state law from interfering with a valid contract with haulers, attorney Mark Bradford said.

Not so, said attorney Greg Joseph, an attorney representing a citizens group seeking a public vote. Citizens’ right to approve or reject local laws in cities with a home rule charter trumps the wishes of their City Councils.

“Is there a line between the electorate and the City Council?” Joseph asked. “No. The voice of voters is not discretionary.”

Within days, the state’s highest court will decide which law carries more legal heft: St. Paul’s contract with a consortium of haulers or its charter, which gives residents the right to approve or reject City Council action.

In May, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro ruled in favor of St. Paul Trash, a group that petitioned to put St. Paul’s year-old organized trash collection program on the November ballot. The city appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to expedite its process, holding oral arguments Tuesday to give elections officials enough time to add a referendum to the Nov. 5 ballot.

The court will issue a “yes or no” decision before Aug. 24, officials said, with a more detailed ruling to come later.

Based on the justices’ questioning of attorneys during the hourlong hearing, which focused heavily on whether contracts could or should trump charter rights, trash plan opponents appeared optimistic outside the courtroom at the State Capitol.

“It looks like we got our charter back!” boomed Greg Copeland, who’s running this fall for City Council.

Said Alisa Lein, part of a group that organized the St. Paul Trash petition drive: “I feel good about it. The judges did a good job asking questions.”

For its part, the St. Paul City Council appears to be girding for the possibility of losing. On Tuesday, the council issued notice of a special meeting Friday to consider directing the city clerk to notify the county auditor to put a referendum on the fall ballot — the same ballot on which all seven City Council seats are up for election. What happens after that, however, remains unclear.

If St. Paul voters approve the plan, it will pretty much continue as it has since rolling out in October 2018. The city will continue to be divided into areas assigned to a single hauler on a specific day of the week. Many residents have said they’re happy with less truck traffic, pollution and noise on city streets and alleys.

If voters reject the plan, it’s uncertain what officials would do next. Could St. Paul continue its contract with the haulers, shifting the cost to property tax bills? Or could St. Paul return to its old system of homeowners picking their own haulers and paying wildly varying prices? Previously, some 9,000 households had no hauler contracts, with some disposing of their trash in not-always-legal ways.

Lein, who said she likes some elements of the St. Paul plan, wants the flexibility to allow homeowners to share carts while also giving cheaper options to those who produce little waste. If the Supreme Court requires a referendum, she said the city and haulers might come up with a better plan in the two months before a vote is held.

“If something like that is on the ballot,” she said, “It’ll pass.”