Trash Talk? It’s just beginning of what ails St. Paul

This article was first published in the Star Tribune on October 12, 2019. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Star Tribune’s website. View on

As mayor plans to honor garbage contracts despite vote, money would be better pointed to housing, potholes and reducing violence. 

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Indeed, when patterns of deception and malfeasance present themselves, it is our duty to take up pens and fill our quivers with pointed words. Nothing short of civic revolution demanding transparency and accountability can save our democracy.

People are beginning to understand that the inability to get a simple garbage contract right is only one symptom of a malfunctioning system. On Nov. 5, St. Paul voters will weigh in on Ordinance 18-39, creating new rules for collection and disposal of trash, without accurate information about what will happen after the vote. The information coming from City Hall is opaque when transparency is needed most.

As the mayor, council and city attorney know, the trash haulers already have refused repeated attempts to renegotiate this contract. To promise voters post-election contract negotiation breakthroughs is simply wrong.

Saint Paul STRONG

City government should be accommodating the will of the people, not manipulating it. Even if voters reject it, Mayor Melvin Carter has promised to honor the flawed contract, and this time with a twist. He proclaimed that all property-tax payers, whether they receive residential trash service or not, will pay for it. A majority of the council accommodated the mayor by adding 17.4% to the maximum levy to cover trash.

As the mayor, council and city attorney know, the trash haulers already have refused repeated attempts to renegotiate this contract. To promise voters post-election contract negotiation breakthroughs is simply wrong.

Last year, 6,400 citizens signed a petition seeking to have a voice in the trash contract city leaders had negotiated that was contrary to common sense in every regard. Then, following the perennially bad advice of the city attorney, the City Council voted not to accept the petition. Citizens sued and what followed was an oft-repeated routine of recent years: The city lost in district court, appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and lost again. The court ordered that the referendum be placed on the ballot in compliance with the St. Paul City Charter.

The mayor and council are making costly decisions based on faulty legal advice and seem incapable of admitting mistakes.

“If you don’t like it, sue us,” is an unacceptable attitude for City Hall. We are currently embroiled in a class-action lawsuit because our City Parks and Recreation Department did not follow our own earned sick- and safe-time ordinance.

The citizens paid the $800,000 settlement for the wrongful-termination-of-contract lawsuit at Black Bear Crossing and the total loss continues to rise as new tenants come and go from that location and leave with debts to the city unpaid.

The city lost the lawsuit regarding right-of-way assessments, changed some wording but not the actual practice, got sued again, and lost again.

The list of costly lawsuits continues to grow.

Meanwhile, we have an affordable housing crisis, potholes that no longer get filled, and an increase in gun violence that has us on track to break records. There is so much work that needs to be done and instead our attention and resources are focused on a terrible contract that is pushing more people toward homelessness and hopelessness.

Landlords have raised rents and citizens have applied for food assistance to pay for increased trash bills. When citizens call their council members to talk about this, either phone calls aren’t returned or they are advised that there are social programs to help.

So, in effect, we take from one hand to pay the other when we have signed a contract that increases the cost of living which then forces more people onto government assistance that we also fund through our taxes.

When we complain loudly enough about inadequacy of public services and exercise our right to a referendum, City Hall takes us to court, raises the annual cost of living, and threatens to raise it even more. Two years ago, St. Paul taxpayers saw the tax levy increase over 20%. Last year, the City Council congratulated itself on only raising the tax levy by 10.46%. The maximum levy set on Sept. 25 was 22%. They cited it as the responsible thing to do, given the uncertainty of the trash referendum.

But what is to prevent that high tax levy from becoming a slush fund for pet projects? Where will the accountability and transparency be now that the council has given itself an outrageously high amount with which to work?

It is time to hold our elected officials accountable. Insist that whatever candidate you vote for will promise to once again audit our city departments and fulfill the necessary duty to act as a check and balance on the mayor.

With fewer journalists at City Hall, we citizens must demand to know who is really making the decisions, where our money is being spent and what is being done with it. Transparency and accountability are necessary if democracy is to survive.

Dave Durenberger is a former U.S. senator. Shirley Erstad is executive director, Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County. Both are members of the steering committee of Saint Paul STRONG.