Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

YWCA Minneapolis generously supports MinnPost’s metro news coverage. Learn why.

Is garbage enough to get upstart candidates elected to the St. Paul City Council?

garbage ruck
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson
All municipal governments in Minnesota must establish regulations for picking up trash.

For Patty Hartmann, campaigning to overhaul St. Paul’s trash-collection system is an extension of her full-time job. A personal injury attorney, she says she has spent most of her life seeking justice for those who have suffered at the hands of powerful interests victims of car crashes, medical malpractice, legal negligence. 

Now a new group needs her eye for wrongdoing, she says: the residents of St. Paul.

From its cost and impact to the way city leaders rolled it out, the issues with St. Paul’s citywide garbage pickup program have broken the public’s trust with city leadership, she says. “It’s Machiavellian in nature, the tactics employed by the city,” Hartmann said. “It [the program] isn’t just an error by the city — there’s something much darker at work.”

Over the past year, her legal training and experience have helped her explore those theories, she said, and she’s used a variety of tactics to share what she has found. She’s testified at City Council hearings. She’s befriended environmental activists. She posted on social media. And she’s helped to collect 6,400 signatures for a petition asking the trash program to go before a vote. 

Yet Hartmann felt those moves alone weren’t enough to accomplish her main goal: to get the City Council to scrap its existing garbage plan all together. Only a position on the elected body would get her closer to that outcome. So Hartmann launched a run for city council, challenging current council member Chris Tolbert, whose Ward 3 includes Highland Park and most of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. 

“When the city tries to tell you should be paying $100 for three months of trash service when you used to pay $30 that’s going to make someone shake their head and say they don’t trust the city,” Hartmann said. “If we can’t get somebody new in office, we should give up. We can’t trust the people who are in there.”

All seven St. Paul City Council seats are on the ballot on Nov. 5., and each race includes an incumbent, with six of those incumbents having already received an endorsement from the city’s DFL party. But every incumbent is also being challenged by at least one candidate like Hartmann — someone who feels the garbage-collection controversy reveals bigger problems and a need for fresh blood at City Hall. 

But even as some residents support the outsiders’ campaigns, calling them a necessary solution to DFL elitism at City Hall, the question remains: Is a flawed trash pickup system enough to get someone elected to City Council in St. Paul? 

Garbage 101

All municipal governments in Minnesota must establish regulations for picking up trash. For decades, the city of St. Paul allowed residents of single-family homes or small multi-family complexes to hire their own trash haulers or coordinate with neighbors for pickup on a household-by-household basis.

But with residents reporting vastly different bills and a parade of trucks on the same neighborhood streets throughout the week, St. Paul leaders in 2017 decided it was time for a change. In November of that year, the City Council passed an ordinance that established a citywide program setting a framework for pickup schedules and household rates and deciding which collection companies would cover what areas of the city. 

At the time, city leaders said, many residents supported the new initiative but voiced concerns over the new program pushing smaller trash haulers out of the city. As a result of that feedback, the city signed a contract that included all of the collection companies in service, Tolbert said, rather than sponsoring a process that would have forced the city to select one or a few top bidders.

“Several of the haulers said that the only way we could stay in business was to … negotiate with the consortium, which [includes] all the current haulers that are in business at the same time,” Tolbert said. “We had to go down that route, rather than do an RFP, knowing that the costs would be higher directing an RFP would have been cheaper.”

City leaders spent about a year planning for the new program, and in Oct. 2018 they launched it under a five-year contract. In addition to administrative fees, the new agreement eliminated the option for neighbors to share containers and made trash collection mandatory for owners of housing complexes with four or less units.

Various aspects of the program made some St. Paul residents upset. Some environmental activists don’t like the mandatory trash bills and containers, since they don’t accumulate any waste. Meanwhile, other property owners are riled up because they have faced higher bills as a result of the transition, or had poor experiences with their newly-assigned haulers.

Typical was a letter to the city from Virginia L. Martin, who lives in the Summit-University neighborhood: “I am being forced to take 2 medium-sized carts (I have a duplex) at 96.09 each, per quarter, which worked out to $768.72 per year, a more-than-double increase of $426.56,” she wrote. “I am being forced to pay this amount without any negotiation on my part or the part of any other homeowner.”

Trash bash 2019

Some candidates now involved in races for St. Paul City Council believe the trash issue could be a driving force behind voters’ decisions come Nov. 5. 

“I have met many people who are single issue voters because of the impact on their budgets or on the principle of not being engaged or communicated with during the planning process,” said candidate Terri Thao, who is challenging Ward 6 Council Member Kassim Busuri in what’s widely considered to be the city’s most competitive race.

Candidate Tarrence Robertson-Bayless, who is running against Ward 4 Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, agreed that the trash ordeal could play a significant role in the election’s outcome. “Emotions are running high and people are paying attention,” he said in an email.

Along with the races for City Council and four at-large school board positions, ballots will also ask voters to decide ‘no’ or ‘yes’ on the trash ordinance. A ‘no’ vote majority would force the city to eliminate its current setup and go back to the drawing board, while a ‘yes’ vote would affirm the existing system.

The majority of council incumbents believe the latter option is best for the city, saying a coordinated system levels the playing field in terms of pickup schedules and residents’ costs, as well as mitigates haulers’ impact on the environment since less vehicles are canvassing the city.

St. Paul council candidates’ trash-collection positions
A "Yes" indicates the candidate wishes to keep the current city-coordinated trash-collection system, a "No" that they want to abolish the system, and a "?" that the candidate could not be reached and their position is unknown.
Ward 1 (Frogtown and Summit-University)
Anika Bowie?
Liz De La TorreYes
Abu NayeemNo
Dai Thao (incumbent)Yes
Ward 2 (West 7th Street, the West Side, Lowertown and downtown)
Sharon Anderson?
Lindsay Ferris MartinNo
Bill HoskoNo
Helen Meyers?
Rebecca Noecker (incumbent)Yes
Ward 3 (Highland Park and most of Macalester-Groveland)
Patty HartmannNo
Chris Tolbert (incumbent)Yes
Ward 4 (Hamline-Midway, Merriam Park, St. Anthony Park and parts of Macalester-Groveland and Como)
Chris HolbrookNo
Mitra Jalali Nelson (incumbent)Yes
Tarrence Robertson-BaylessNo
Ward 5 (Como, North End and Payne-Phalen)
Bob Blake?
Amy Brendmoen (incumbent)Yes
Jamie HendricksNo
Suyapa MirandaNo
Ward 6 (Frost Lake, Hayden Heights, Hazel Park, Payne-Phalen, Phalen Village and Prosperity)
Alexander BourneNo
Kassim Busuri (incumbent)No
Greg CopelandNo
Danielle Swift?
Terri ThaoYes
Nelsie Yang?
Ward 7 (Dayton's Bluff, Mounds Park, Swede Hollow, Battle Creek, Highwood, Conway and Eastview)
Kartumu King?
Jane Prince (incumbent)Declined to answer
Mary Anne Quiroz?
David ThomNo

What’s more, no one not even Council President Amy Brendmoen has a simple answer for what would happen with the five-year contract if voters repeal the ordinance. Mayor Melvin Carter and other city officials have stressed that the city will need to keep paying the haulers no matter the outcome, which could mean raising property taxes to generate revenue in place of trash fees established by the current ordinance, at least unless the Supreme Court says otherwise. 

Last month, the City Council approved a 22 percent limit on next year’s property tax levy — which would result in a $163 increase for a home of median-value (about $200,000) in St. Paul, just in case voters strike down the ballot measure and the city has to fulfill the contract terms. The actual levy, however, could drop as the council firms up the city’s 2020 budget in coming months, or if the Supreme Court weighs in on the trash controversy.

“That’s a worst case scenario,” said Ward 2 Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown neighborhoods.

Bigger than garbage collection 

Hartmann, the attorney who is running to represent Ward 3, is not the only first-time candidate who believes the trash controversy has exposed big problems with municipal government.

“I will be voting ‘no’ because if taxes increase as Mayor Carter says, it will place the boondoggle of him and the City Council on the entire city,” Ward 7 candidate David Thom wrote in an email. “I hope that it will have an extreme effect on the election and the entire city council will be replaced.”

Candidate Abu Nayeem, an educator who’s challenging Ward 1 incumbent Dai Thao, said he also wants the ordinance repealed because it would send a message to Carter and the Council that residents are fed up with leadership that doesn’t share their values.

“They care less about trash, but they care more about leadership admitting when you’re wrong and doing the best you can to get a better deal,” Nayeem said. “If you actually look at people who are voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it’s usually more of a sentiment of being ignored and not being listened to.”

Yet Hartmann remains among most vocal candidates talking about the issue. She thinks the problems with the trash system showed how City Council members are listening too closely to political strategists instead of paying attention to the needs of everyday residents.

“They’re nothing more than a rubber stamp for what’s a small club of city insiders, some people affiliate that club with the DFL it brings in votes,” she said. “But they [city council members] don’t have principles that true Democrats stand for.”

Hartmann also believes that, despite the city’s intention, its contract with the consortium of haulers has created a monopoly of collection services. Initially, 15 collection companies operated in St. Paul but now there are only six. “I see all of these things to be interconnected,” Hartmann said. “This trash issue is the issue that brought these problems to the forefront.”

Hartmann is working with the property owners suing the city based on allegations that the City Council violated the city charter and unfairly denied voters’ input on the matter. The landowners filed the lawsuit in Ramsey County Court earlier this year, and a judge eventually sided with them, ordering the city to sponsor a ballot referendum.

The city of St. Paul appealed the district court judge’s ruling, a move that sent the lawsuit to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court heard oral arguments on the case in August, and quickly affirmed the district court’s ruling. The court has yet to release a full explanation of its decision.

In the meantime, the city has kept its waste pickup system rolling, saying its contract with the haulers remains in effect, despite the court proceedings. 

“We need to take the lesson that we learned from this situation, and apply it toward the next contract,” council member Dai Thao said. “That’s a better solution than to have a referendum and then, as the mayor put it, potentially putting it on property taxes.”

Where council members stand

Among current city council members, only Busuri, who city leaders appointed to complete the term of a retiring council member last year, said he is voting ‘no’ on the ballot measure. He is also the sole incumbent without an endorsement from the city’s DFL party.

“The cost is too high, the level of service for many has decreased, and it doesn’t take into account people who produce little or zero waste,” he wrote in an email. “A majority of the current elected officials in St. Paul appear to have stopped listening to their constituents.”

Meanwhile, Ward 7 incumbent Jane Prince, who voted against the haulers’ contract with the city, declined to share her stance. “I’m a city elected official who has had a voice in this thing, and I don’t want to put my thumb on the scale for people who want to vote on this,” she said.

The rest of the elected officials stress that if voters vote ‘yes’ and maintain the current trash program, they can try to renegotiate the city’s contract with haulers to address some of residents’ complaints. Many of them said they would like to rework the contract’s rules that require every unit to have a container or mandate pickup for households that don’t have much garbage.

“Contracts are negotiable if the parties can agree, and I think there are reasons for both sides to come to the table to make adjustments to the existing trash contract,” council president Brendmoen said in an email. “I look forward to a post-litigation, post-referendum moment when this type of conversation would be possible.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/04/2019 - 11:47 am.

    St. Paul, just so you know, these Trash Wars make you guys look pretty terrible and backward.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 10/04/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    The Trash vote is NOT about whether or not we want a municipal trash collection system. There are a lot of us who plan to vote NO who are in favor of municipal trash collection, but are opposed to this idiotic system that results in a system where the average St Paul homeowner is paying 2.5 times the cost for garbage collection vs the same homeowner in Maplewood who is getting the same service from, in many cases, the same trash hauler (Republic).

    It’s not just the cost. If I own a 4 plex in St. Paul, why should I be forced to have 4 small containers vs 2 large ones, when I have absolutely no room in the alley for this.

    The election isn’t just about trash. It’s about incompetence. Look at what’s happening with all the shootings around town. While the city is being terrorized by a small group of gang bangers, the Mayor and the City Council wants to cut 5 cops from the police force. Instead of their “Restorative Justice” BS, the city should be hiring 5 more prosecutors and stop plea bargaining gun crimes and insure that any felon in possession of a firearm gets an automatic 5 years in prison!

  3. Submitted by David Sisk on 10/04/2019 - 02:27 pm.

    I’ll echo Mike Schumann’s first paragraph. I also favor municipal trash collection and I also plan to vote ‘No’ – and I will certainly be voting for a new Ward 2 City Council representative.

    For me, the trash program is a good idea that has been bungled and botched beyond recognition. That alone might be tolerable, if the City Council and the Mayor said or did anything to fix the glaring problems. Instead they have dug their heels in, denied that the problems are that important, ignored their constituents and vaguely threatened us with property tax increases if the ‘No’ vote prevails.

    The breaking point came when a majority of the Council voted to simply ignore the results of a petition drive to put the trash question on the ballot. St. Paul’s charter is pretty clear on this point, even to non-lawyers like myself: if a certain percentage of valid signatures petition to put an initiative on the ballot, it goes on the ballot. The City’s effort to keep this question off the ballot, and away from voters, brazenly defied the law. No wonder the district court and then the state Supreme court ruled against ’em.

    Now it’s our turn, and by ‘our,’ I mean voters. If you don’t have a viewpoint on the trash referendum, you have time to educate yourself. Please take a stand and vote!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/04/2019 - 04:07 pm.

      As a lawyer, I will tell you that whether a ballot measure is valid is much more complex than simply gaining enough signatures.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/04/2019 - 07:05 pm.

        Perhaps you will enlighten me, lawyer to lawyer.

        The petitioners seem to have survived all the legal obstacles the City could throw in their way, using some high-dollar firms to make their case.

        They may not win but they have tapped into a deep sense of unease and distrust of a mayor and council who make major decisions on whether to do something and only ask for citizen input on how, if at all.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/07/2019 - 11:37 am.

          My point was more of a general one – there is more than just getting enough signatures to getting on the ballot. And while the court deemed it sufficient in this case, the uncertainty of what a no vote will mean demonstrates the problem with government by ballot measure in the first place.

          Your second paragraph is utter nonsense. St. Paul is finally catching up to Minneapolis and becoming a progressive city, and the baby boomers and cranks are not happy. Same old story every time. It doesn’t matter how much process and input there is, if these people don’t like the outcome, there wasn’t enough. Mayor Carter got elected by an overwhelming margin and has been implementing his agenda. Its representative democracy. People don’t get a veto because they are old and wealthy and white.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/04/2019 - 03:02 pm.

    I don’t understand where people were getting this super cheap garbage collection. I had a couple of different haulers over the years, and my bills went down after the City passed this.

    Now we have one truck a week come down the street instead of eight. I love the new garbage system. I’ll be voting yes.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 10/05/2019 - 07:14 pm.

      Look up the garbage rates in Maplewood vs St. Paul. Both are available on-line. St. Paul homeowners are pay 2.5 times more for municipal garbage collection than similar homeowners in Maplewood.

      Why? Government incompetence in St. Paul.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/07/2019 - 11:43 am.

        Part of the problem in St. Paul is that they did listen to people and kept the small haulers around (who sold out anyway) instead of just bidding it out like Maplewood did.

  5. Submitted by Sean Ryan on 10/04/2019 - 03:21 pm.

    And somehow, Minneapolis residents have gotten by just fine with municipal trash collection.

  6. Submitted by Mike Hindin on 10/04/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    Having 7 different companies’ trucks on a street collecting trash, recycling, and organics is dangerous for kids, higher pollution, and wearing out alleys and road ways excessively. In areas were collection is voluntary there is often illegal dumping. Fix the flaws in the existing system.

  7. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/04/2019 - 04:27 pm.

    The city went through a process to do a good thing: consolidate trash hauling to decrease the number of trucks and fuel used.

    The community input process was extensive, though no process can ever reach everyone and we all now know that many people seem to care a lot more about price than paying a living wage or keeping small haulers in business than those earlier rounds of community input found. With that input, city staff was charged with getting a contract with a consortium of haulers, and they made that contract. The contract has made the prices charge across the city more consistent, and there is a lot of exaggeration about how discrepant things are with other cities. There is a base cost to having a truck with people come by your house, and it’s not $10 a week.

    I personally do not see why some folks appear to be so enraged by the idea of elected officials trying to do their job, and instead thinking things should be done by referendum. The contract is not perfect, but throwing out the ordinance is not the way to go forward, either.

    I am voting Yes and know that my council member (who I hope will be reelected) will be working to modify the contract for things like sharing carts at duplexes. Keeping the ordinance means the city will be able to add curbside organic pickup in a relatively short time (hopefully 2021) – if there’s a No vote, that will not happen because the whole thing will be in disarray.

    No one knows what might happen with the “force majeure” clause. Different lawyers offer different opinions. Anyone who says they’re *sure* it means the contract is abrogated is wrong.

    The No folks are loud and angry, but I think the people who are at least mostly happy with the new system are more numerous.

    • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 10/05/2019 - 01:30 pm.

      Seconded. Our neighborhood is so much quieter, as someone who frequently works from home. Our garbage prices are lower. I like how people compare things to Maplewood, where they have a granted private hauler monopoly, like that concept would have worked in this process negotiating with 15 haulers in Saint Paul. They don’t mention other cities, whose prices are more in line with Saint Paul. Also, 9000 households didn’t have garbage service before!

      There is a silent majority here, but the question is will enough of them come out to vote in an off-year election.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 10/05/2019 - 09:43 pm.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, the error appears to be they did not put out an RFP which may have lowered the price and they signed a contract that included all the companies. Most cities would have done an RFP. How is it most other cities do have a lower trash rate and 1 or 2 companies.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/06/2019 - 07:03 pm.

        Okay – it was in the article and now in your comment – what is an “RFP”?

        • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 10/06/2019 - 09:41 pm.

          Request For Proposal. You put out an RFP and receive back proposals.

          • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/07/2019 - 10:10 am.

            Oh – so it’s the same as putting out for bids? So you’re saying the city never put this out for bids? Doesn’t that violate some law somewhere? (I thought everything government-related had to be put out for bids.)

            • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/10/2019 - 09:39 am.

              There was a public input process that showed people wanted to keep the small mom and pop haulers. So instead of an RFP a consortium of all haulers who were interested was set up… there were 16 to start with. Then there was a negotiation between the city and that consortium. This is all well documented.

  8. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 10/06/2019 - 11:22 am.

    I hope all the incumbents lose.

    They do not care about the average citizen.
    They are responsive to only a select group of well connected advocates.

    When they come with an idea for public comment, that means their minds are made up and damn what the non connected want.

    They allowed no input from the public on the garbage issue and now they have a mess.

    So, so glad I moved out of Ramsey county and Highland Park.

  9. Submitted by James Robins on 10/07/2019 - 03:49 pm.

    The article is helpful, but perhaps readers should think more about the issue on its own terms related to good governance, as opposed to viewing it as a partisan issue. Certainly there are far more DFLers who will be voting “no” than the 33 Central Committee members who decided to make it a partisan stance a few days ago.

    It simply isn’t true that the City Council took in adequate public feedback in the final shaping of the proposal. When I tried to weigh in to help shape a more practical and environmentally defensible plan, I was told my Ward 2 council member had made up her mind “and she will not be available for the next several weeks leading up to the day of the vote.”

    Thank you to Jane Prince and Kassim Busuri for their highly responsible approaches in the face of an authoritative, yet misguided, coalition.

    Even if the “no’ vote succeeds, the City has full power to renegotiate licenses with remaining haulers that accept contract terms excluding legal action based on the previous contract. Haulers can choose to sue or continue to work at their peril. Perhaps that smart strategy would require hiring outside counsel with greater expertise than appears to be available in the City Attorney’s Office.

Leave a Reply