After five years in court, trash collection issue will finally go to Bloomington voters

After a circuitous legal battle lasting five years, Bloomington residents will get to vote Nov. 3 on two ballot questions to determine how their garbage will be handled.

“This should have gone to a vote way back when,” said Joel Jennissen, who belongs to a group of residents who sued the city over their right to weigh in on the issue before the city implemented organized trash collection in 2016.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decided in 2020 that a resident petition backed by Jennissen and others that sought to put the trash collection question on the ballot was legal, after city officials had rejected the petition.

Greg Joseph, an attorney for the group, said he was “just disgusted” that the city didn’t let residents vote and that the city “came up with a list of reasons” why it wasn’t warranted. The debate wasn’t really about trash, he said.

“The suit was about letting the people decide,” Joseph said. “The next time it might be about something you care about.”

Bloomington Mayor Tim Busse said he believed garbage collection is part of a city’s job and that he didn’t understand some residents’ emotional ties to their haulers.

“From my perspective, this is a public works issue,” he said.

But the City Council, preparing for the outcome of the vote, approved Monday the necessary ordinance changes required for different scenarios.

Bloomington voters will see two ballot questions, which some have called confusing at best. The first asks whether they want to be able to vote on organized trash collection, and the second asks whether the city charter should be changed to prevent the city from implementing organized collection. The second question is contingent on passage of the first.

If voters reject organized collection, city code gives them 30 days to choose a private hauler. “That’s going to set off a pretty significant scramble,” said Busse, since the city has 22,000 households.

Bloomington began moving toward an organized trash collection system in 2015 to reduce the number of garbage and recycling trucks traveling around town, which causes wear and tear on the streets, Busse said. The system created a consortium out of the city’s seven licensed haulers.

It’s “worked pretty well,” Busse said, adding that 80% of residents rated their trash collection “good” or “excellent” in a recent survey.

But from the start, some residents balked at city officials making trash decisions without letting them have a say. Jennissen said the city held a public hearing on the night of high school graduation and that officials “never really made any good argument” for organized collection.

A similar scenario played out in St. Paul, where the city’s plans to implement organized collection spurred a petition by opponents to let voters decide. When residents voted in 2019, they favored keeping organized collection.

In Bloomington, neither side said it has a sense of how the vote will go. But Joseph said he wishes it had occurred four years ago when the issue was fresh in people’s minds. “People get weary,” he said. “You lose that initial sort of shock.”

Joseph added that voters might be befuddled by having to vote on two measures. It might give the city an out if residents approve the first question but not the second. “Is this going to open up to more litigation? It might,” he said.

Busse said both questions were necessary and that officials “tried to make it as logical and reasonable as possible for residents.”

Jennissen has come up with another option. He said he’s been “self-hauling” his garbage and recycling for years and that he will probably continue to regardless of how the vote goes. “I don’t find it very burdensome to do,” he said.

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