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

Every incumbent on the council is being challenged by at least one “Vote No” candidate, many of  whom feel the trash-collection controversy reveals the need for fresh blood at City Hall. 

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

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. 

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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.”

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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.

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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.”