Though an appellate court ruled last week that St. Louis County can’t “override” a state law requiring it to issue a two-year notice to waste haulers before establishing trash districts, county officials believe they only have to consider the law — not follow it.
Three weeks after the trash-district program went into full effect in unincorporated areas of St. Louis County, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals issued an opinion that would require county officials to adhere to the state-mandated two-year notice to waste haulers before establishing trash districts.
In the Oct. 21 opinion, the court states that despite county officials’ claims the County Charter supersedes Section 260.247 of Missouri Revised Statutes mandating the two-year notice, county officials’ claims of home rule do not apply in this case.
The opinion, which reverses and remands a decision from St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Steven H. Goldman, states, in part: “… We correct the (St. Louis County Circuit) Court’s interpretation of Section 260.247, holding that it is a general statute of statewide public policy. Thus, the county may not exercise its constitutional legislative authority to override Section 260.247.”
American Eagle Waste Services, Meridian Waste Service and Waste Management of Missouri originally sued the county in May for not providing the two-year notice.
But county spokesman Mac Scott said county officials believe that the state law requiring the two-year notice must be considered and not necessarily followed.
“This appellate court ruling, that it’s somehow a victory for the haulers or a loss for the county, that’s not my understanding of what the ruling was,” Scott said. “… When they (haulers) appealed, the appellate court said: ‘Whoa, wait a second. You can’t not consider this state law.’ Not that this state law is the only applicable law or the law that should be applied to the situation. It just has to be part of your consideration, part of your decision. It’s fine if you end up saying OK, this health-code thing says you can implement these districts. If you’ve looked at all the different issues and weighed them out and your logic is good and they end up saying: ‘OK, that’s the law that should apply,’ it isn’t that you have to have a two-year notice or whatever the state law says. It’s that that law has to be considered in any decision you make.”
But Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow believes the appellate court reinforced her company’s opinion that the county must issue a two-year notice.
“Waste Management is pleased with the decision issued today by the Missouri Court of Appeals,” Disbrow said Oct. 21. “The Court of Appeals agreed with the haulers that St. Louis County failed to provide a required two-year notice by state law before implementing the trash districts.
“And right now, we’re in the process of evaluating the decision as it’s been referred back to the trial court to determine the remedy.”
At the same time, Scott said county officials are questioning the validity of the state law requiring a two-year notice as it was enacted after the County Council voted to establish trash districts. While the council voted 7-0 in December 2006 to establish future trash districts, the state law requiring the two-year notice was not enacted until 2007.
While county officials are questioning that state law, some unincorporated residents are considering canceling the services of the haulers assigned to their district and employing unassigned haulers.
Attorney Lester Stuckmeyer last week served as host of an anti-trash-district rally at Bayless Senior High School, where he said there is no county law preventing unincorporated residents from choosing any hauler they wish.
Stuckmeyer is representing American Eagle and two residents in another lawsuit against the county to try to bring trash districts to a vote in each district.
“Yes, you can contract with a hauler of your choosing,” Stuckmeyer said. ” … We need to get the word out and make (county officials) understand that we will not subscribe to this program. We have the right to choose … The sooner you make this program worthless, I think the quicker the county gets the hint … There is nothing in the statute that prevents you from choosing the hauler that you like.”
Stuckmeyer added that he does not believe residents would be fined or penalized for employing haulers not awarded trash districts.
To defend against the possibility of litigation from haulers assigned to trash districts, Stuckmeyer encouraged people to inform their assigned haulers that they do not want their service.
“The county trash hauler has not contracted with you personally to provide the services,” he said. “So you are under no contractual obligation … However, there is a theory that if the trash hauler actually comes and picks your trash can up and provides you the service, you may be responsible for that day’s pickup or however many days they do that. A way to prevent that is to tell the hauler that you have found somebody else and you no longer want their service.”
He then read a sample note encouraged to be sent to assigned haulers stating: “I do not want your company to provide trash service to me and I specifically state that you are not to pick up my trash. I have a contract with fill-in-the-blank, and they will be picking up my trash. I do not want your service.”
In response to Stuckmeyer’s suggestion, Scott said while the county currently has no “clear answer” on how to address unincorporated residents choosing other haulers, county officials would support haulers awarded trash districts by the county.
“We have implemented these trash districts and put it out for competitive bids,” Scott said. “And the winners of these competitive bids are going to get our full support and help in any way that we can give to them to make this program successful. So where we go from that to a house here or a house there signing up for a different hauler, we still don’t have a clear answer on that yet. But we are going to do what’s best for the haulers that won the competitive bids.”
The county has established eight trash districts in unincorporated areas with one trash hauler per district. County officials have said this was done in response to unincorporated residents complaining that their neighborhoods were being serviced by multiple trash companies.
County administrators contend that having one hauler per district will result in a more uniform brand of service and lower prices.
But some waste haulers and unincorporated residents have criticized the move because county officials also have stated that districts likely would force some small haulers out of business due to a lack of competition.