It was a textbook case of what some might call “big government” and what others might cite as a great example of the reason government exists. Now, the progressive administration of the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, is taking heat from the usual suspects but also has managed to raise the ire of its base. Why the misstep? What could city officials have done differently?

Those same city officials thought St. Paul had a problem: Every day garbage trucks were rumbling up and down the city’s alleys and streets, making noise, blocking traffic and compromising quality of life for city residents. Why? Because each of St. Paul’s more than 70,000 households and businesses were free to contract with any trash hauler they wanted and strike the best deal they could. It wasn’t at all uncommon for one truck to pick up one bin of garbage in one alley on one block. In fact, it happened all the time.

Enter the city, which divvied up the city map and assigned territories to a 15-hauler consortium: One hauler, one neighborhood. So far, so good, but with the new arrangement came new rules. Every single-family residence was obligated to contract with the trash hauler assigned to their area, and every multi-unit building had to have one trash bin for each unit. Outrage ensued, as several single-family residents had been sharing bins with their neighbors, and trash collection fees for landlords of multi-unit buildings skyrocketed. Also out of luck were those who hauled their own trash or who had reduced their solid waste to the point of not needing trash collection. There also was no provision to suspend service for vacation or even for those who head south for the winter.

Opponents – many among the city’s progressive base – have gathered enough signatures to put the matter to a public vote in the November election. The city attempted to block that vote, but a district judge ruled the city must indeed put a referendum on the ballot. At this writing, the city is appealing that ruling.

What did St. Paul’s progressive administration do to irk just about everybody, including its own base? As with any relationship (see our earlier July post), you’ll get more cooperation from people who feel you’re interested in their well-being and have been receptive to their point of view. St. Paul officials would have done better to pro-actively build equity in its relationship with its constituency. In this case, it might have been as simple as listening rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all position and sticking to it no matter what. (At this writing, the city has proposed an ordinance that would restore a city code section that states “This section shall not preclude abutting property owners from cooperating for arranging for collection services from a licensed hauler, not other arrangements for reasonable interruption of service.”) Had they been listening, they probably would have heard that from the get-go. More important, they’d not have compromised their relationship with their most loyal supporters.