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Trash talk: Lembke tangles again with St. Louis County in waste-hauling dispute

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - Can county residents lose their drivers licenses if they don't pay their trash bills?

That's the latest question tossed out by state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, who takes issue with the prosecutions now under way of some South County dwellers who are refusing to pay their trash hauler.

A spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat, says nobody will lose a license. But county ordinances long have mandated that people hire a hauler to do away with their trash.

For several weeks, the county courts have been dealing with the violations, some of which are prompted by the recent controversy over the County Council's decision -- at Dooley's behest -- to divide unincorporated county territory into districts where a certain waste hauler would be assigned.

The county says the aim was to reduce waste-hauling traffic, improve recycling and reduce overall costs. Critics say the move forced residents to change trash haulers and reduced their choices.

In protest, some residents have opted not to pay their trash bills.

But Dooley spokesman Mac Scott says that number is small. About 60 South County households -- out of 37,650 -- failed to respond to summons that called for them to appear in court if they didn't pay their trash bill, he said.

So far, six residents have been found guilty in court and were fined $50 plus $62.50 in court costs.

Scott notes that the county -- which used to be controlled by Republicans -- long has required its residents to get their trash collected. "Everybody has to have a contract with a waste hauler,'' he said.

As for the drivers license threat, Scott confirms that the county's general court summons -- which cover a variety of different ordinance violations -- does make reference to the possibility of losing one's license.

But he said that the county counselor's office has no plans to seek such punishment in the case of unpaid trash bills, and notes that court rulings have indicated that license confiscations are to be limited to vehicle-related violations.

Later, Scott said that the summons' form is being corrected so that it will no longer say, in reference to the waste-haul issue, that "driving privileges could be suspended."

That statement should not be on the summons, he acknowledged.

That doesn't appease Lembke, who is among those involved in a suit challenging the trash-district action. He blames "an overreach of government. They've made criminals of my constituents. They need to be held accountable for threatening taxpayers in my district."

The state senator added that he plans to ask Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to look into it.

Scott countered that Lembke was seeking "a debate that we're not going to get into."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.