State Supreme Court upholds dismissal of trash-district lawsuit


St. Louis County did not violate its Charter by establishing trash districts in unincorporated areas, the state high court ruled Tuesday.

In a 5-2 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a county circuit court’s dismissal in January 2010 of a class-action lawsuit filed by three unincorporated residents.

The high court agreed to hear the case earlier this year after a Missouri Court of Appeals panel also upheld circuit Judge Robert Cohen’s dismissal.

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 pulled its operations out of the St. Louis area last October.

The residents wanted three waste haulers to refund households all the fees they’ve collected since they began exclusively serving the eight trash districts roughly three years ago.

Plaintiffs contended the trash program is illegal and void because the county did not put it to a vote as they claimed is required by the Charter, and also because it did not provide waste haulers with a state-required two years’ notice before establishing trash districts.

They cited 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 …”

However, in a July 19 majority opinion written by then-Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr., the high court ruled that the trash districts did not have to go to a vote because they are simply “geographic areas” and because residents do not pay the county for waste collection.

“Although the county enforces the waste collection program with the threat of prosecution, the county’s citizens have independent contracts with the trash collectors,” the opinion stated. “In establishing the waste collection program, the county merely divided the unincorporated county into geographic areas in which haulers were designated to provide collection services and selected the haulers to provide services within these areas.

“Because the County does not collect any monies from its citizens for the trash collection services” the argued Charter provision does not apply, the opinion stated.

The state Supreme Court also ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the county’s failure to comply with a state law requiring two years’ written notification to waste haulers before establishing the trash districts.

“Appellants argue that they have taxpayer standing because taxes will be spent on St. Louis County’s trash district ordinances and program. (The state statute) is not related to the establishment of the trash collection program, it merely mandates that existing haulers receive notice before they are replaced,” the opinion stated. “The appellants, however, have not pleaded any facts that taxpayer funds were expended due to the lack of notice to the trash haulers. The appellants fail to connect the challenged action – failure to give notice to the existing haulers – and a pecuniary loss or public expenditure incurred by the taxpayers.”

The court also tossed out the plaintiffs’ claim that the county violated the state Merchandising Practices Act.

Supreme Court judges Mary Russell, Patricia Breckenridge, Zel Fischer and Laura Denvir Stith concurred with Price. Dissenting were judges Michael Wolff and new Chief Justice Richard Teitelman.

Wolff in the dissenting opinion described the case as “simple.”

He contended the Charter requires a vote of the people before establishing trash districts, which “would seem to be appropriate and follows from the fact that a private garbage hauler is to be given an exclusive right in the residents’ district to collect garbage and impose a fee for the service.

“This is not a case in which a bedrock principle of democracy is at stake,” Wolff wrote. “I simply disagree with the majority’s reading of the county Charter provision. I would reverse the circuit court’s judgment and let the voters have their way with their garbage.”