Lawsuit seeks vote on trash districts

Voter approval not necessary for districts, county contends

By BURKE WASSON

Two residents and a waste hauler filed a lawsuit last week against St. Louis County that seeks voter approval of eight trash districts established in unincorporated areas by the County Council.

The trash districts were improperly established because they were not approved by the voters of each district as required by the County Charter, the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit cites Section 2.180.24 of the County Charter, which states that 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 …”

For not putting the trash districts to a vote of the people in each district, American Eagle Waste Industries along with south county resident Brett Buchanan and north county resident Greg Porter filed suit Aug. 22 in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

They allege in the suit that the county “has directly violated the command of its own governing charter by imposing upon its citizens in unincorporated areas a mandatory trash-district program and service charge without an authorizing vote by the citizens in each district, as required by the charter.”

County Counselor Pat Redington has contended that trash districts were created “under charter authority” outside of Section 2.180.24. When reached for comment, county spokesman Mac Scott referred the Call to Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls, who did not return the newspaper’s call before press time.

As recently as this spring, county officials have denied claims that trash districts must be created by a vote of the people in each district. At a May County Council meeting, County Executive Charlie Dooley scolded 6th District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, and a handful of speakers for their insistence that trash districts can’t be created without voter approval in each district.

Attorney Lester Stuckmeyer was one of those speakers and he, along with fellow attorney Robert Schultz, now is representing American Eagle, Buchanan and Porter in their suit against the county.

“We gave the county the opportunity,” Stuckmeyer said. “I went and spoke (in May) and gave them the opportunity to do the right thing. And they haven’t done that.

“They’ve trampled on the rights of their own citizens to vote. And it’s important, the right to vote and the right to have a say. If you can’t respect your own county constitution, what can you respect? How do we teach people to respect the law and others if our own government institutions don’t respect it?”

The county has established eight trash districts in unincorporated areas with one trash hauler per district. While one district already has been implemented in north-central St. Louis County, the seven remaining districts will take effect Oct. 1 in unincorporated areas. A total of 311 subdivisions — or 26.92 percent of total households in unincorporated areas — petitioned the county to opt out of trash districts.

County officials contend that having one hauler per district will result in a more uniform brand of service and lower prices.

But some waste haulers and residents, mostly in south county, 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.

American Eagle owner Bryan Barcom estimates that his company will lose “60 to 65 percent” of more than 22,000 households under contract in St. Louis County when the seven remaining trash districts are effective. He believes this will result in a $3 million annual loss for his company.

With these factors in mind, Barcom said he entered into this lawsuit “to save our business and to ensure that our employees have a place of employment.”

American Eagle joined with two other waste haulers to file a previous lawsuit this year against the county, but the Missouri Supreme Court rejected those haulers’ request for a writ of mandamus. This came after American Eagle, Meridian Waste Services and Waste Management of Missouri appealed a June 25 dismissal from Circuit Court Judge Steven H. Goldman.

All three of those waste haulers came up short in bids to provide service in any of the eight trash districts.

The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals on June 27 also denied a request for a writ of mandamus submitted by the waste haulers.

The three waste haulers filed suit May 29 against the county contending state law requires county officials to issue a two-year notice to waste haulers before establishing trash districts in unincorporated areas and awarding contracts for trash pickup.

Redington has said that the notification requirement does not apply to St. Louis County because it is a charter county.

But Stuckmeyer contends that the County Charter requires voters in each proposed district to vote on their establishment.

“If you look to the county and what their defense was on the first lawsuit, it was: ‘No, no, no, the state statute doesn’t apply to me. We’re a charter county. We’re a charter government. Our charter is the rule,'” Stuckmeyer said.

“Well, we’re saying: ‘Here’s your charter.’ It clearly states that if you create trash districts and in those trash districts you pay for them with a service charge, i.e. you have to pay the charge for the service, that each of these districts are required to have a vote … So the county can’t have it both ways.”

When asked if the ultimate goal behind the lawsuit is to get citizens in each proposed district to vote on them, Stuckmeyer said, “That would be great. If tomorrow the county government said: ‘OK, we’ll put it to a vote,’ I would accept whatever outcome came out of that vote. If the people in the districts voted and said they wanted it, everybody would be fine … It’s hard to accept that you’re being forced to do something without having a say in it.”

Porter emphasized that he believes the county has discriminated residents in unincorporated areas by not allowing them to vote to establish the trash districts.

“It’s discriminatory in that it doesn’t give people equal protection and equal rights,” Porter said. “The people don’t have a say, and that’s really what the whole crux of this matter is.”

Until the county puts trash districting to a vote, Stuckmeyer maintains that the county is not only unresponsive, but “afraid of its own citizens.”

“What does it hurt to give them the right to vote?” Stuckmeyer said. “What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of stinging defeat in the face of opposition that they know is there. Look to the opt-outs just to tell you.

“They’re afraid of the people. This county government is afraid of its own citizens.”