Class-action suit challenges St. Louis County’s trash districts

By EVAN YOUNG

St. Louis County’s trash district program was hit with fresh litigation last week, this time from residents demanding refunds of fees they’ve paid waste haulers for “illegal” trash removal.

Paul Marquis of Fenton and Cathy Armbruster of Lemay filed a class-action lawsuit Sept. 14 in St. Louis County Circuit Court against the county and the three waste haulers it contracted last year to exclusively serve eight trash districts in unincorporated areas.

Representing residents and other county property owners, the plaintiffs want haulers Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services to repay all the fees they’ve collected since they began servicing the trash districts last fall.

The suit also asks the court to declare county ordinances establishing the trash districts and prohibiting unauthorized haulers from providing trash removal within them “illegal and void.”

“This is just an attempt to put more pressure on the county to (be an) honest government, good government. This is what happens when the county refuses to listen to people,” plaintiffs’ attorney Lester Stuckmeyer told the Call.

Asked how much money his clients believe the haulers owe residents, Stuckmeyer said, “Take the number of households in unincorporated St. Louis County who are under the trash districting program and multiply that by $11 a month or $12 a month (for trash service), multiply that by almost a year now. There you go … It’s millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars.”

Two other trash district-related lawsuits against the county are pending in county circuit and district courts.

Haulers American Eagle Waste Industries, Meridian Waste Services and Waste Management of Missouri filed suit against the county in May 2008. They allege it violated a 2007 state statute by failing to give two years’ notice to waste haulers currently serving residents before establishing the trash districts.

The three haulers came up short in their bids for the trash district contracts with the county that eventually went to Allied, IESI and Veolia.

Circuit Judge Steven Goldman dismissed their lawsuit in June 2008, ruling that because St. Louis County is a charter county, it was exempt from providing the two-year notice required by state statute 260.247.

The haulers appealed the decision, first to the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals and then to the state Supreme Court; both courts refused to review the ruling.

However, the case returned in July 2008 to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and remanded the initial, June 2008 Circuit Court decision to dismiss the case.

In its opinion, the appellate court wrote that statute 260.247 was a “general statute of statewide public policy” and that St. Louis County couldn’t override it.

The county unsuccessfully appealed this decision to the state Supreme Court, and the case went back to the Circuit Court in February.

On May 27, the county moved the case to the U.S. District Court in St. Louis and since has filed a motion to dismiss. The haulers are seeking $25,000 in damages.

In the second lawsuit, American Eagle Waste and county residents Brett Buchanan and Greg Porter claim the trash districts were improperly established because the matter was not brought to a public vote.

The plaintiffs claim the County Charter requires such a vote.

Plaintiffs in that case reference Section 2.180.24 of the charter, which states the County Council “shall have, by ordinance, the power to … provide for the creation of districts in the unincorporated areas of the county within which may be provided … garbage and refuse collection and disposal, and such kindred facilities as the voters therein by a majority of those voting thereon may approve, the same to be paid for from funds raised by special assessment, general taxation or service charge …”

A case management conference was scheduled in June with St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Larry Kendrick, but Stuckmeyer, who represents the plaintiffs in that case as well, said the judge’s bailiff told attorneys gathered for the conference that Kendrick would “get to it … when he gets to it.”

Both the “right to vote” and “two years’ notice” arguments are made in the third lawsuit filed last week.

“On Oct. 21, 2008, the Missouri Court of Appeals … ruled that St. Louis County was required to give the notice required by 260.247 RSMo … St. Louis County has ignored the Missouri Court of Appeals’ ruling and has continued to carry out, contract, enforce, prosecute and convict persons under its invalid trash district ordinances,” according to the lawsuit petition.

In addition, “No election on the issue of trash districts has been held in St. Louis County,” the petition states.

County officials say they established the trash districts as a way to standardize service and reduce costs through competitive bidding. They maintain the districts were established legally.

The Call was unable to reach a county spokesman for comment on the latest lawsuit by press time Monday.

But trash-district residents — many from south county, where four of the eight districts are situated — argue that the program takes away their right to choose their hauler or whether to have service at all. In addition, 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger told the Call earlier this year that he has received many complaints from residents about Allied, IESI and Veolia missing trash pickup days.

And haulers that didn’t receive contracts from the county, such as American Eagle Waste, claim the trash district program has taken away their customers and, in turn, revenue.