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A looming referendum on St. Paul’s organized trash pickup has injected new energy into City Council contests, attracting first-time candidates who say City Hall’s bungled rollout of the garbage plan is emblematic of mounting mismanagement.

Some council members and challengers say trash collection is one of the top issues they’re hearing about on the campaign trail. Others say it hasn’t come up much. But most agree that having a controversial referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot will draw out voters on both sides of the issue.

“By us pursuing the referendum, in a sense we pulled the curtain open on what’s really going on at City Hall,” said Patty Hartmann, who credits the trash issue with spurring her decision to run in the Third Ward. “People are pretty angry.”

The council approved organized trash collection in 2017 and public works launched the program in October. Pushback from residents who preferred the old system was immediate, and thousands signed a petition demanding the city put organized trash on the ballot.

After the city attorney countered that St. Paul’s contract with trash haulers prevented a ballot measure, residents filed a lawsuit. Last month, the Minnesota Supreme Court said the city must allow residents to vote on the issue.

Though organized trash predates the current council, some residents and council challengers view the ballot measure as a referendum on their leadership.

North End resident Jeffery Thole said council members made a big mistake when they refused to put the garbage plan on the ballot, and he’s convinced they’ll pay the price on Election Day.

“They tried to ignore the citizens. They tried to fight them,” said Thole, who supports Jamie Hendricks, a trash plan critic hoping to unseat Amy Brendmoen in Ward 5. “They don’t respect the opinion of their constituents and, on this and many other issues, they ignore their input.”

Tarrence Robertson-Bayless, who’s running against Fourth Ward Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, said organized trash is one of the top issues residents are talking about, along with taxes and the condition of city streets. Even those who like organized trash are “really upset about the process that led us to where we’re at today,” he said. “They don’t feel as though they should have to pay the price for the city’s mistake by not including it to be voted on in the first place.”

The Supreme Court decision came days after Mayor Melvin Carter proposed a 4.85% property tax levy increase as part of his 2020 budget. Council members may set a maximum levy as high as 23%, in case organized trash is voted down and the city has to pay an estimated $27.1 million to haulers.

“My hope is that we set this limit high so that we can accommodate things in case it doesn’t prevail, but that after Nov. 5 we’ll be able to bring it back down to a much more modest level,” said Brendmoen, City Council president.

Vote result isn’t a given

Brendmoen said she supports some of the changes that residents say they want, including the option to share trash bins and lower prices for those who produce less waste. But “it’s hard to negotiate … when your contract is up for a referendum,” she said.

At this point, it’s tough to guess how the referendum will play out. Turan Birol, a former resident of Minneapolis, New Jersey, New York and, originally, Turkey, said the garbage plan is working well for his family and has decreased the traffic rumbling down his alley.

“If you go by just what you see on social media, it sounds like everybody hates it,” he said. “But I think you could easily find more people [who support the plan] than what you see online.”

Macalester-Groveland resident Janet Humphrey is among those frustrated that the trash plan is up for a vote.

“I have no desire to go back to the old system. I’m perfectly happy,” she said. “But this issue going on the ballot is gobbling all the air in the room.”

Liz De La Torre, who’s challenging Council Member Dai Thao in the First Ward, said she has concerns about how the city put together the contract with haulers and whether residents will be on the hook if the system is voted down. But she also wouldn’t mind changing the subject.

“I’m kind of just ready to be done with the garbage stuff, because I think there are more pressing issues, you know?” De La Torre said. “Let’s just get it done and over with and just move on to the other stuff.”

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509