Referendum on St. Paul’s trash system readied for voters

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter gives remarks.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter gives remarks on the Supreme Court ruling over the city’s trash collection at the mayor's office in St. Paul on Friday.
Tarkor Zehn | MPR News

The St. Paul City Council voted 7-0 to approve language for a ballot referendum for the Nov. 5 election, asking voters whether they want to continue with the city’s contentious centralized trash collection system that started in October.

The vote came one day after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that St. Paul residents had a right to decide whether they wanted the new streamlined trash collection system, which the city argues reduces truck traffic and limits illegal dumping, but critics claim is unfair and more expensive.

The city had to approve the ballot language quickly to meet a Friday deadline to send it to Ramsey County.

Council members signed off on the referendum language after hearing comments from four citizens, none of whom voiced significant concerns with the wording.

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The ballot states:

Should Ordinance ORD 18-39, entitled “Residential Coordinated Collection,” remain in effect for residential trash collection in St. Paul? Ordinance 18-39 creates new rules for the collection and disposal of trash and payment for trash service; and requires that certain residential dwellings have trash collected by a designated trash hauler. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote in favor of keeping Ordinance ORD 18-39. A ‘No’ vote is a vote to get rid of Ordinance 18-39.

St. Paul launched its new garbage system in October, ending a decades-old practice of allowing residents to pick their own garbage hauler. City officials argued that system was inefficient, and resulted in multiple garbage trucks rumbling down streets and alleys on several different days.

Residents rebelled, arguing the system raised costs, and was unfair, because it required every housing unit to have its own garbage can — so a four-plex, for example, needed to have four separate trash receptacles, even if all of them weren’t needed.

Resident Mike Schumann and other St. Paul residents.
Resident Mike Schumann and other St. Paul residents gather to hear Mayor Melvin Carter's remarks on the Supreme Court ruling over the city’s trash collection at the mayor's office.
Tarkor Zehn | MPR News

“Why can’t we get a simple change, so I can have two big ones, instead of four?” St. Paul resident Mike Schumann asked the council before it voted to approve the language. He implored council members to begin work to fix the program even before the election takes place.

Opponents of the new trash system collected thousands of signatures asking the City Council to let voters decide whether to accept the new program, but the City Council refused, arguing it would breach the city’s multi-year contract with trash haulers.

Three St. Paul residents sued, arguing that denying the referendum violated the city’s charter, an argument ultimately backed by the state Supreme Court after justices heard oral arguments Tuesday.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said Friday the city will comply with the ruling, despite its earlier rejection of the request for a referendum. But at a press conference he said there’s still uncertainty.

“The court issued their decision but has not yet explained the rationale,” he said. “Our path forward won’t be completely clear until we receive that information. But we will abide by the court’s final determination. One matter has been decided. The ordinance will be on the ballot this November.”