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Judge orders St. Paul to let voters decide on trash hauling; city plans to appeal

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St. Paul trash and recycling carts.
St. Paul trash and recycling carts on Dousman Street and Goodrich Avenue in November 2018.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2018

Updated 4:30 p.m. May 31 | Posted 8:45 p.m. May 30

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter Friday announced that the city will appeal a judge's ruling that said voters should get to decide how garbage is hauled. 

A Ramsey County judge ruled Thursday that the City Council wrongly denied a referendum on the city's new standardized system for trash collecting after thousands of residents petitioned for a vote.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaks during a press conference.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter says that the city plans to appeal a judge's ruling on a trash hauling ordinance during a press conference Friday at City Hall in St. Paul. Also pictured is Amy Brendmoen, St. Paul City Council president.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Three residents sued the city after it reached a 2017 agreement with garbage haulers that centralized collection. Carter said the city worked with residents for two years on ways to streamline garbage hauling in the city before making it uniform.

Before that, residents had to arrange their own trash pickup.

Carter said even if voters decided they liked the old way better, the city would still have to pay the remainder of its new garbage hauling contract. 

"For the remainder of 2019, preliminary estimates from office of financial services indicate this amount is approximately $13 million, which would require tapping into the city's emergency reserves," he said. 

In an October letter to the St. Paul City Council, Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said a petition submitted to his office had 5,071 valid signatures — more than the 4,932 required to qualify for a city referendum. But the City Council rejected the move to place a referendum on the ballot, saying they had authority over garbage collection.

Attorney Greg Joseph represents the residents. Joseph said the lawsuit was less about trash and more about maintaining citizens' rights to put an issue up to a vote in their city.

"It has to do with whether these are valid voter measures," he said. "The impact will be felt across a broad spectrum of law. It won't be confined to trash hauling."

In his memorandum, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro said, "The City argues that placing the Referendum on the ballot 'would create unnecessary uncertainty and chaos in the garbage collection currently happening within the City' and could cause 'serious public health concerns.' The record is devoid of any evidence to support these claims."

City Attorney Lyndsey Olson says the city is considering appealing the ruling. Olson said in a statement Thursday, "The City of Saint Paul is assessing the impact the ruling has for the City, and its residents." She went on to write, "As the City plans for the operational and financial challenges this ruling may result in, including the potential burden to St. Paul taxpayers, we will continue to work with the consortium to ensure trash service continues for our 70,000 households."