You CAN fight city hall

Supreme Court rules that Bloomington taxpayer group was disenfranchised over mandated trash collection.

Bloomington taxpayers have proved—again—that you can fight city hall, even if it takes years and means going all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The state high court ruled on February 12th that the city of Bloomington effectively disenfranchised thousands of residents by rejecting their petition in 2016 to put a ballot measure before voters over whether to implement organized trash collection.

“The significance is people still have rights against their city government. This means that people’s rights don’t just get trampled,” said attorney Greg Joseph, who represented Bloomington residents pro bono. “This reminds rogue city governments that you have to honor the law. It may be inconvenient, but you’ve got to do it.”

The Bloomington city clerk ruled the petition submitted by the grassroots group Hands Off Our Cans met the legal criteria. But acting on the advice of then City Attorney Sandra Johnson, Mayor Gene Winstead and the Bloomington City Council nevertheless refused to put the issue on the ballot in November 2016. Instead, city hall proceeded to impose a system called organized garbage collection, eliminating competition between providers and choice for residents.

A news release from Hands Off Our Cans underscores the implications for local governments of the court’s ruling.

“The City Charter in Bloomington reserves for voters the broad powers of Initiative, Referendum, and Charter Amendment power,” the group said in the release. “The Court found that the ballot measure was a valid expression of citizen legislative power, and that the City Council’s refusal to place it on the November ballot was not a proper exercise of its authority. The Bloomington Charter reserves for its people broad power to enact and change legislation, the majority held.”

The city of Bloomington has not yet announced how the decision will play out in the state’s fourth largest city. For now, it’s status quo while city officials ponder the potential impact on the organized hauling system that has already cost taxpayers several million dollars to implement.

“The City is reviewing the opinion and evaluating next steps. There will be no change in collection services in Bloomington at this time,” Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said in a statement. “The City’s contract for the organized collection of garbage and recycling remains in place. Residents should continue to place their garbage and recycling out using the current collection services.”

The high court did not order Bloomington to put the issue on the ballot this fall. But the plaintiffs insist it’s time for city hall to honor the spirit of the law and give citizens their say in a vote that’s years overdue.

“The ruling means that the Charter Amendment, which will give the voters the power to choose their preferred system of trash collection in the City, must be placed on the ballot, at which time the voters can make their voices heard,” the plaintiffs said.

The decision marks the second time the grassroots activist group has triumphed over the city at the Minnesota Supreme Court. In a unanimous 2018 ruling, the court upheld the right of residents of home rule charter cities to place legislation on the ballot for citizens to vote on.

Finally, after four years of litigation, the plaintiffs expect to get their day at the polls come November.

“This is over, this is done,” Joseph said. “We’re looking forward to the voters finally being heard.”