Minnesota Supreme Court hears arguments over St. Paul’s trash collection

Trash carts line an alley in St. Paul.
Trash carts line an alley between Stanford and Wellesley streets in St. Paul on June 5, 2019.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday over whether St. Paul residents should be able to vote on the city's new centralized trash collection in a ballot referendum.

The dispute started a couple of years ago when St. Paul decided to end its decades-old practice of letting residents pick their own garbage hauler. The city said the old system was inefficient, and led to multiple trucks going up and down alleys every day.

The City Council passed new ordinances and contracted with a collection of haulers. The new system started in October.

But not everyone is happy about it. Opponents say it's unnecessary and more expensive, and some argue it's unfair to require every resident to pay for trash service.

Here are some questions and answers about the dispute over St. Paul’s trash collection system:

How did this end up before the Minnesota Supreme Court?

Opponents of the new system circulated a petition to put the issue on the ballot as a referendum, and collected thousands of signatures.

But the City Council rejected the referendum, saying it would unlawfully infringe on the city's contract with the haulers. The city also said it would be on the hook to pay haulers millions of dollars for the remainder of the contract.

In February, three St. Paul residents sued the city, arguing that denying the referendum is a violation of the city's charter.

A Ramsey County judge ruled that voters should get to decide how their garbage is hauled. The city appealed that ruling.

What arguments did both sides make before the Supreme Court?

Attorney Mark Bradford, who represents the city, said under the law, the city — not the residents — has the right to decide how to handle waste.

"The people don't have the right to enter into the contract,” he said. “The contracting authority is vested in the executive branch of the government. So, what this case is really about is they want to exert contracting authority, and they don't have that."

On the flip side, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Greg Joseph, said the reason the city of St. Paul chose to be a charter city was to give the people a voice on issues through voting.

"This right has to be respected, because the will of the people as expressed through a referendum and the will of the City Council are always going to conflict with one another,” Joseph said.

How did the justices react to the arguments?

They had lots of questions, some fairly pointed. They asked a lot about citizens' right to vote directly on issues, whether the city's authority supersedes that right, and whether the Legislature anticipated this conflict when it drafted laws, especially on waste hauling.

The justices also asked the practical effect on trash collection if voters vote it down. Would trash collection simply end?

The city's attorney said no, the city wouldn't breach the contract. It probably would have to dip into its emergency reserves to pay haulers.

“If the ordinance is repealed, the electorate's not required to pay anything for their trash service so we'd have to pay for it,” Bradford said. “The question is are people going to put out their trash on the assigned days. If the trash is out there, it will be picked up."

What happens next?

Justices took the case under advisement and likely will release an opinion soon.

The City Council has scheduled a special meeting on Friday to decide whether to place the referendum on the ballot for the Nov. 5 election.

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