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Money in garbage: Who’s funding each side of the St. Paul trash vote

The St. Paul trash debate is shaping up to be the hot political debate of 2019.

trash lawn sign
In advance of the vote, the political committee St. Paul Trash Lawsuit started printing lawn signs and flyers in order to bring people into the “no” camp.
MinnPost photo by Caroline Schwenz

The two main groups seeking to sway voters in St. Paul’s trash debate have spent thousands of dollars on flyers, ads, polls and yard signs, according to campaign finance reports filed, most recently this week, with Ramsey County.

On Tuesday, November 5, voters will decide whether to keep the city’s recently adopted city-coordinated trash collection or repeal the ordinance (MinnPost’s Jessica Lee has a rundown of the debate here).

Earlier this year, a group opposed to an ordinance bringing trash collection under city control sued St. Paul, arguing the city should recognize its petition to put the trash matter to a public vote. A judge ruled in their favor, landing the question on the ballot.

In advance of the vote, the group’s political committee started printing lawn signs and flyers in order to bring people into the “no” camp.

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In late September, a group supporting the city ordinance popped up, spending to try to convince people to vote “yes.”

So who’s behind these groups and what are they spending money on?

Behind ‘vote no’

St. Paul Trash Lawsuit, the committee spending to try to defeat city-coordinated trash collection, has spent a total of $20,944  this year. $13,700 of that amount went toward legal fees in its lawsuit against the city.

Colleen Halpine, the chair of the committee, is a St. Paul resident. Peter Butler, the secretary/treasurer, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city.

This year, Grand Ole Creamery, the ice cream shop on Grand Avenue owned by Gary Huffman (also a donor) has given $1,500; MN Financial Management Corp. in Bloomington gave $1,000; J&S Bean Factory, a coffee shop on Randolph, gave $825; Stonewood Investments in St. Paul gave $200 and the Groomsmen, Inc. in Minneapolis gave $200. Mancini’s Char House gave $350 in appetizers as an in-kind contribution.

The Trash Lawsuit group itemized only receipts and expenditures over $100, interpreting a St. Paul ordinance that requires political committees to report anything over $50 as not applicable to groups raising and spending on a ballot initiative (in state law, the cutoff is $100).

Besides legal fees, how are they spending the money? The group spent $2,255 on flyers and stickers and $4,238 on lawn signs.

Butler told MinnPost the Trash Lawsuit group has been handing out flyers and stickers throughout the city, in addition to distributing lawn signs that promote its position.

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At the end of the reporting period, October 17, the group had $7,111 on hand.

Butler said he feels good about the upcoming election.

“I feel I run into many people who are going to be voting “no.” It’s not just because I am on the Facebook page for vote no and only see that side of it,” he said. “People I know through church or friends of friends (say they’re voting no). I don’t run into too many of the yes people.”

Between competitive council races and the trash vote, Butler predicts turnout could surpass 60,000 — about double the turnout in usual council-race years.

Behind ‘vote yes’

The names behind the committee trying to preserve the city’s organized trash collection system, called Yes for St. Paul, are committee chair Javier Morillo-Alicea, the former SEIU Local 26 president and a longtime activist, and treasurer/secretary Darren Tobolt, both of St. Paul. The group has raised $16,408 and spent $9,622 so far.

The group has the backing of several labor union PACs: $1,500 from the PAC associated with St. Paul Fire Fighters Local 21; $1,000 from North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and $500 from the AFL-CIO St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. AFSCME Council 5 provided $8,300 in-kind.

Why are unions so interested in the issue?

“AFSCME Council 5 knows that an honest city budget is necessary for our members to provide the exceptional city services that residents deserve,” wrote Emily Weber, the union’s communications coordinator, in an emailed statement. “Our members believe that building strong communities for all families — not just our members — is important, and they are willing to invest in projects that build a healthier, more sustainable Minnesota.”

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Among the group’s individual donors are deputy mayor Jaime Tincher, city council members Rebecca Noecker and former council member Russ Stark, who works for the mayor’s office. Messerli and Kramer P.A., a law firm, gave $1,000.

Yes for St. Paul spent $8,300 on research, which Tobolt said went to things like a poll and messaging. So far, it’s also spent $1,000 on ads. For example, the group has put the following ads on Facebook:

Yes for St. Paul has spent $1,000 on ads.
Yes for St. Paul has spent $1,000 on ads.
As of the end of the reporting period, Yes for St. Paul  had $6,786 on hand.

ISAIAH, a faith coalition, Sustain St. Paul, which advocates for “community, fiscal and environmental sustainability,”and Zero Waste St. Paul, focused on reducing waste, have been working in support of the efforts, Tobolt said.

“It’s a problem that’s already solved and going back on it is just going to mean that we’re going to keep talking about trash instead of all the other important issues,” he said.