JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys for parties in a class-action suit over the county’s trash-collection districts argued their case last week before the Missouri Supreme Court.
The judges took the case — the first of several lawsuits over the trash program to reach their courtroom — under submission following roughly 40 minutes of oral arguments May 11.
Three county residents want three waste haulers to refund households all the fees they’ve collected since they began exclusively serving eight trash districts in unincorporated areas some three years ago.
Plaintiffs Cathy Armbruster of Lemay, Paul Marquis of Fenton and Mike Weber of Oakville in September 2009 sued the county and Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services, which remains a defendant despite pulling its operations out of the St. Louis area last October.
The plaintiffs contend the trash program is illegal and void because the county did not put it to a vote as they say is required by the Charter, and also because it did not provide waste haulers with a state-required minimum two years’ written notification before establishing trash districts.
A state appellate court panel in November upheld most of a county circuit court’s earlier dismissal of the case. The plaintiffs appealed, and the state Supreme Court in March agreed to hear their case.
“My clients are citizens, are taxpayers, are residents of three different trash districts established by St. Louis County and so they have standing because one, they are subject to the illegal ordinance; they have standing, two, because their tax moneys are being spent on this illegal scheme; and three, they were some of the people who were supposed to vote on this had St. Louis County had actually obeyed their Charter,” plaintiffs’ attorney Rob Schultz told the seven judges of the state Supreme Court last week.
The plaintiffs cite a section of the county Charter that 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 …”
The county has argued that its Charter provides for the establishment of trash districts without an election, citing sections that state the council can “(c)ollect and dispose of … garbage and refuse, or license and regulate such collection and disposal,” and one that authorizes the council to “(f)urnish or provide within the part of the county outside incorporated cities any service or function of any municipality.”
Schultz said while residents don’t pay the county directly for trash service, they are required to pay their assigned trash-district hauler or face prosecution. That enforcement of the trash program is funded with taxpayer money, he added.
County Counselor Patricia Redington argued that residents pay their trash hauler for service; the trash districts themselves do not raise funds as described in the Charter section that requires an election, she said.
“It doesn’t go to an entity for collective payment,” she said.
Redington also contended the state’s two-year notice provision was “wholly irrelevant” to the class-action suit.
She asked the high court to correct a precedent set by the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in the separate case of three waste haulers that sued the county for it not providing two years’ written notification of its forthcoming trash program.
While Redington has contended the 2007 Missouri law requiring a two-year notice doesn’t apply because of the county’s Charter status, the appellate court ruled in 2008 that statute 260.247 was a “general statute of statewide public policy” and that the county couldn’t override it.
“The bigger issue on that 260.247 is the fact that the General Assembly didn’t have the authority to override the Constitution and tell the county that the county had to give notice, that the county was prohibited for two years from exercising its constitutional power to regulate trash collection,” Redington told the high court. “That really is the biggest issue with respect to this …”
Judge Richard Teitelman asked, “Did you challenge the constitutionality of the Legislature on this issue?”
Redington said, “It’s not really the constitutionality of the statute itself. The General Assembly has the right to say: Cities and counties, you’re going to give notice. But they don’t have the right to have that applicable to a charter county which has a superior constitutional claim to authority.”
Teitelman asked, “Did you challenge that?”
Redington said, “Yes, we’ve challenged it. We’ve raised this issue in another case … This was before the Eastern District on a motion to dismiss a declaratory judgment and we said this statute is not applicable to us, and the Eastern District said that it was.”
Judge Laura Denvir Stith said, “Can you address opposing counsel’s argument to the contrary that the purpose of the statute is to make sure that people get notice so they can make necessary business adjustments, and that’s a broader, more statewide interest, a matter of public policy, not just having to do with trash collection, and therefore it is permissible? …”
Redington said, “I want to jump on that question because that is the crux of the whole problem with what the Eastern District did in this case. That is the exact problem. They said the purpose of this (law), what the Legislature wanted to do was give notice to these haulers. It doesn’t matter what they wanted to do.
“This court has said, and it’s obvious I’m sure to all of us that legislative intent, good ideas, the Legislature cannot override a constitutional grant of authority. The constitutional grant of authority … says: Counties, you have superior legislative authority with respect to municipal functions …”
She later added that the notice provision “substantially undercut our authority … The effect of it is to say: County, you may have a constitutional right to provide for municipal services such as trash collection, but we’re not going to let you do it for two years. The Legislature can’t do that. The Legislature cannot override the constitution, and that’s why it’s so important for this court to make this correction before this very bad and incorrect precedent goes any farther.”
Toward the end of oral arguments, Stith asked Schultz to explain why he thought the appellate court was correct in ruling that providing haulers with two years’ notice before regulating trash collection is a matter of statewide concern.
“I mean, couldn’t you say, you know, that we think it’s really important that every contract with a service provider include some provision for a percent to go to the city or some provision for anything the state may think? You really have not ceded much authority to the charter counties then or charter cities if you can simply say: We think it’s good public policy to have this kind of provision in every contract and therefore we’re going to require it. That’s sort of in effect what you’re argument is …,” Stith said. “Tell us why that was a right decision, why you would draw the line saying that is a matter of statewide concern whether or not you give notice to people before changing contractors. Because that seems like more something that someone who is letting contracts would be involved in.”
Schultz replied that the court was correct from an economic standpoint, noting “large amounts of money” are involved in the trash industry.
“Often times we go through life and we don’t think about what happens before we get up and the trash is collected,” he said. “Huge amounts of money are spent statewide, both for collecting the trash and buying the equipment to do it and …”
Stith interjected, “Again then wouldn’t that apply to every municipal contract?”
Schultz said, “Ma’am I can’t say whether it would or not. I think for the trash hauling business with its characteristics of large capital expenditures, large equipment, having to shut down and fire your people, I think that was the justification for it that the Court of Appeals found. That this is an industry that goes beyond any sort of municipal boundary … That was the justification given and found as sufficient by the Court of Appeals judges.
“Do I know where the line is? No. However, in this case, this particular ordinance that violates 260.247 was found to be well over that line by the Court of Appeals.”