By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — A group of residents have gone to court for the right to decide who dumps their trash.
“We want the people to have a voice in the process,” said Joel Jennissen, a day trader who founded the citizen-led Hands Off Our Cans campaign. “Every step of the process, where they’ve had citizen input, the majority says they don’t want this. The city keeps going down this path, ignoring that voice.”
The controversy amounts to nothing more —or less — than a bunch of garbage, as the city moves to trash the current system and discard that option for residents.
“It’s probably the most contentious program I’ve dealt with,” said Jim Gates, Bloomington deputy public works director, who’s fielded hundreds of emails and calls “It is pretty personal, they are vocal, and most of it is over the loss of freedom of choice.”
Residents can now select from seven garbage haulers serving a suburb best known as home to the Mall of America.
“I’ve been able to choose my hauler since I’ve lived in Bloomington, for 21 years. And I’ve changed a few times for whatever reason, service or price. And the fact the city is taking that right away from me got me involved,” said Mark Vanik, who’s going door-to-door collecting signatures for a petition campaign to place the issue on the ballot this fall.
But officials claim that fleets of trash trucks disrupt neighborhood traffic, pollute the air and cause undue wear and tear on city streets. Their so-called “organized collection” proposal requires garbage haulers to form a consortium to retain their market share of customers in Minnesota’s fifth-largest city.
“The idea of a free market and the right to choose who provides that service for you is a very legitimate response,” said Andrew Carlson, a Bloomington city councilor who supports overhauling the system. “The counter argument I’ve been hearing is, what about the right to choose the quality-of-life issues and improvements to the environment. So that’s a choice as well, and I think as a council, that’s what we’re left to figure out.”
Under the new plan, Bloomington would be divided into seven sectors, one for each hauler, who would assign customers based on address rather than preference. Residents would pay a monthly flat rate for garbage collection, which, proponents maintain, will save citizens a few dollars a month.
Opponents dispute the city’s numbers.
Businesses get a pass, according to the proposal before the Bloomington City Council. The city could also keep its current garbage pickup.
“That would still be a separate contract. We haven’t rolled the city’s pickups into the organized portion of the program yet,” Gates said.
Since 2011, organized collection attempts have been defeated in 13 Minnesota cities, according to Garbage Haulers for Citizens Choice. St. Anthony Village implemented the system earlier this year. The industry-backed website maintains a watch-list of nine cities considering restricting residents’ choice of providers. The members emphasize their backing for political candidates who support free markets.
“We believe in the value and service options that a competitive market brings, where smart consumers can easily shop for the options that best fits their needs,” the website states.
Meantime, opponents continue to circulate petitions to put two initiatives before voters in November. The measures would prohibit the city from replacing the competitive market in solid-waste collection without voter approval.
Bloomington city attorney Sandra Johnson has ruled state law pre-empts an initiative petition on the issue. The opinion prompted Hands Off Our Cans to file a complaint in Hennepin County District Court that would allow the initiative effort to move ahead anyway.
“The voters are allowed under Minnesota laws and the Bloomington city charter to weigh in on matters of significant public importance,” said Mike Drysdale, attorney for the citizens group. “They might say yes, they might say no, but they at least get a voice. That’s what the whole initiative and referendum process in the city is all about.”
The Bloomington City Council could vote to replace the current collection system as soon as Monday.
“It’s not about trash. It’s about the people having the opportunity to voice their opinion on something that’s sweeping across the entire community,” Bill Reichert said while holding a clipboard of petitions signed by fellow residents.