Friday, September 05, 2008

Lawsuit Making Its Way Through the Legal System

Two residents and a waste hauler filed a lawsuit the end of August against St. Louis County that seeks voter approval of eight trash districts established in unincorporated areas. They say the trash districts were improperly established because they were not approved by the voters of each district as required by the County Charter.

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.”

(Attorney Lester Stuckmeyer addresses reporters. From left, are: Bryan Barcom of American Eagle Waste, Greg Porter of north county and Brett Buchanan of south county. Click on Photo to enlarge)

County officials have denied claims that trash districts must be created by a vote of the people in each district. Attorney Lester Stuckmeyer along with fellow attorney Robert Schultz, now is representing American Eagle, Buchanan and Porter in their suit against the county.

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.

Some waste haulers and 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.

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.

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.

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."

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. County government is afraid of its own citizens."

An online survey found 1 in 4 people regularly retreats to a spare room or sofa to get a good night's sleep.

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