MN High Court Rules for Citizens Fighting Bloomington on Garbage

A citizen watchdog group just handed the city of Bloomington an embarrassing loss at the Minnesota Supreme Court. The case started over the rights of residents of the Twin Cities suburb to choose their own garbage hauler.

But more broadly the unanimous 6-0 ruling upholds the standing of citizens in home rule charter cities to bring petitions and place legislation on the ballot apart from and in opposition to the city council.

I wrote about their Hands Off Our Cans campaign several times over the course of their three year effort to hold elected officials in Bloomington accountable to the city charter. 

They’ve garnered hundreds more signatures on their petition campaigns than five-term Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead received in votes last November.

But it remains to be seen whether the third and latest petition from the citizens group Hands Off Our Cans will be the charm or third strike in a year-long battle with City Hall to let residents vote on who should collect their garbage.

Until now, residents of Minnesota’s fifth largest city have been able to select from seven garbage haulers. But the Bloomington City Council has moved to replace the system for “organized collection.”

The issue at stake—freedom of trash—may strike some as less than inspirational, but for supporters it gets to the heart of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Minnesota Supreme Court today gave the citizen watchdogs the only legal victory that mattered, overruling lower  courts in siding with their quest to allow residents to bring and vote on legislation per the city charter. The city attorney previously rejected their carefully crafted petitions on technical grounds.

“It was a lot of work and the city fought us every step of the way, which was no fun,”  said Bill Richert, one of the organizers behind Hands Off Our Cans. “It should be a wake-up call for municipalities that says that piece of paper called a city charter means something. Read it now and then.”

In 2016 the city began forcing residents to use an assigned garbage hauler, eliminating competition between providers and choice for residents. But the core group of citizen watchdogs never backed down, mounting a legal challenge that culminated with today’s adverse ruling for the city as reported in the Star Tribune.

In his opinion, Justice David Lillehaug wrote that the Legislature never intended to regulate how a city sets up its organized trash collection system.

“The Legislature intended to impose minimum standards, but also provide municipalities considerable flexibility, should they wish to explore organizing collection of solid waste,” according to the opinion. “The Legislature allowed the process of organizing collection to differ from community to community.”

It’s not clear where this development leaves trash collection operations in Bloomington. But the broader issue of whether citizens in home rule charter rule cities have the power to bring petitions and make laws on garbage collection or any other issue was clearly decided in the peoples’ favor.

“What the ruling today says is that cities can adopt a home rule charter and that governs what happens in that city, period,” said Greg Joseph, the citizens’ attorney. “And voters can go around the city, they’re not subservient to it. In Bloomington, they’re a co-equal legislative authority and this is a rightful exercise of it. Today it’s about organized garbage collection, but tomorrow it could be about anything. “