In Jennissen v. City of Bloomington, 913 N.W.2d 456 (2018), the Minnesota Supreme Court recently held that Minn. Stat. § 115A.94 (2016) does not preempt local ordinances concerning municipal waste collection systems, finding that the Legislature did not intend to occupy the field but instead left room for supplemental municipal regulation.  In reversing decisions by the Hennepin County District Court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Supreme Court specifically found that Minn. Stat. § 115A.94 does not preempt Bloomington residents’ passage of a charter amendment that would prevent the City of Bloomington from implementing an organized waste collection ordinance without prior voter approval. On remand, the Court of Appeals held that the residents’ proposed charter amendment was an improper referendum.  The Minnesota Supreme Court granted review on January 15, 2019.

Factual background

In late 2014, the City of Bloomington sought to change its system of open collection of mixed solid waste—where individual residents contracted with their choice of city-licensed haulers—to an organized collection system in which the City would contract with a single hauler or group of haulers.  The City initiated this change by passing a resolution to negotiate with existing City-licensed haulers, and formed a committee to study the issue and negotiate with the haulers.  In December 2015, the City executed a contract with the haulers for organized waste collection.

Throughout the process, a group of residents petitioned the City for a ballot initiative to enact an ordinance that would require voter approval before the City could implement organized collection.  The City rejected the ballot initiative, however, on grounds that, among other things, the proposed ordinance was preempted by state law under Minn. Stat. § 115A.94.  That provision—part of the Minnesota Waste Management Act—pertains to certain procedures a municipality must follow if it chooses to implement organized collection of solid waste within its jurisdiction.

Lower court rulings

The resident group initially challenged the City’s decision in Hennepin County District Court, which granted summary judgment for the City after determining that the ballot initiative was not a proper ordinance since it qualified as a proposed limitation on the power of the city council.  Such a limitation, the district court ruled, could only be accomplished, if at all, by an amendment to state statute or the City’s charter, not by ordinance.

In accordance with that ruling, the resident group submitted a proposed charter amendment to the City for placement on the ballot.  The proposed amendment would have required approval by a majority of voters in a general election before the City could replace its competitive solid waste collection market with an organized collection system.  The City again declined to place the proposal on the ballot, however, on grounds that the proposal was preempted by state law.

To that end, the resident group again appealed the City’s decision to the Hennepin County District Court, which granted summary judgment for the City after finding that Minn. Stat. § 115A.94 preempted the proposed charter amendment.  The district court held that, by passage of Minn. Stat. § 115A.94, the state had fully occupied the field of regulation of the process by which a city organizes collection, and, accordingly, the charter amendment could not change that process.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, reasoning that, because Minn. Stat. § 115A.94 sets out a detailed process and extensively regulates the subject of solid waste organization, the Legislature intended it to be solely a matter of state concern.  The Court of Appeals added that overriding the Minn. Stat. § 115A.94 process by charter amendment would allow voters to disregard the Legislature’s broad policy concerns expressed in enacting the statute.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that the state occupies the field of regulation regarding the process by which a city may establish an organized collection system, thereby preempting the proposed City charter amendment.

Minnesota Supreme Court decision

The Minnesota Supreme Court accepted the case to review the preemption issue, and, in so doing, it ultimately reversed both lower court rulings.

Under Minnesota law, there exist three types of state preemption of municipal legislative authority:

  • Express preemption, which occurs when the legislature has expressly declared that state law shall prevail over municipal regulation;
  • Conflict preemption, which occurs when state and local laws contain express or implied terms that are irreconcilable with each other, when local law permits what the statute forbids, or when local law forbids what the statute expressly permits; and
  • Field preemption, which occurs when the Legislature has comprehensively addressed the subject matter such that state law now occupies the field.

Here, field preemption was the only type at issue.  The Minnesota Supreme Court analyzed four questions set forth in Mangold Midwest Co. v. Village of Richfield, 143 N.W.2d 813 (1966), to determine whether state law fully occupies the field and left no room for supplemental municipal legislation:

  1. What is the subject matter which is to be regulated?
  2. Has the subject matter been so fully covered by state law as to have become solely a matter of state concern?
  3. Has the legislature in partially regulating the subject matter indicated that it is a matter solely of state concern?
  4. Is the subject matter itself of such a nature that local regulation would have unreasonably adverse effects upon the general populace of the state?

In conducting this analysis, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that the Legislature enacted the Minnesota Waste Management Act to protect the state’s land, air, water and other natural resources and the public health by improving waste management in the state.  Further, the court concluded, based on the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 115A.94, that the statute governs the process a city must follow if it chooses to implement an organized waste collection system.

Nevertheless, after reviewing the many subdivisions of § 115.94, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that the statue does not completely and exclusively cover the field so as to make it solely a matter of state concern for three reasons.  First, the detailed process outlined in the statute does not include a municipality’s decision to organize collection in the first instance.  Rather, the statute emphasizes that the authority granted by the statute neither requires nor prevents a municipality from undertaking an organized collection system.  Second, the statue describes only the minimum steps that a municipality must take to organize collection; it is not the exclusive process and the municipality is free to add steps to the process so long as it is authorized by other law.  And third, Minn. Stat. § 115A.94, subd. 6 expressly states that the authority granted in the statute is in addition to authority to govern solid waste collection granted by other law, including a home rule charter.  Thus, the court found the statute itself expressly leaves room for municipal action authorized under a city charter relating to organized collection.

Upon its conclusion that the Legislature did not intend to preempt the field of regulation in this instance, the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded the matter to the Minnesota Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Minnesota Court of Appeals remand decision

On remand to address remaining issues, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s holding in favor of the City, agreeing with the district court that the resident group’s proposed charter amendment was not manifestly unconstitutional, but concluding it was an improper referendum.

The Court of Appeals held that the proposed charter amendment cannot be manifestly unconstitutional as it would not impair on contractual rights, because the parties do not have rights under the contract between the City and Bloomington haulers. The Court of Appeals did, however, find that the proposed charter amendment was an improper referendum because it was an irregular exercise of the referendum power and would unreasonably enlarge the right to referendum by way of using less-stringent requirements, rendering the words of the city referendum ordinance superfluous, void, and insignificant.

Current status

Many saw the Court of Appeals decision on remand as a practical end to the resident group’s battle to against the City’s organized waste collection.  The City’s organized garbage and recycling collection services will continue for the foreseeable future and the resident group’s proposed charter amendment will not be placed on any upcoming ballots. However,  the resident group have again petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review of the Court of Appeals remand decision on January 15, 2019.

The statements and views expressed in this posting are my own and do not reflect those of my law firm, are intended for general informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.