Supreme Court Sides With Big Trash

Little guy gets rubbed out.

Joseph Ventenbergs was hauling construction, demolition, and land-clearing waste for a handful of contractors in Seattle until 2002, when Rabanco (now part of Allied Waste) pushed for a city ordinance to include CDL under the category of "city waste"—thus bringing CDL under its exclusive contractual jurisdiction. Additionally, Rabanco asked the city to enforce rules requiring additional licensing for collectors like Ventenbergs. The city enacted the ordinance Rabanco sought, essentially pushing Ventenbergs out of business. So he sued, arguing that when he obtained his business license, he was not made aware of any additional requirements for city collectors. The matter made it all the way to the state Supreme Court, where, last Thursday, the justices ruled 6-2 against Ventenbergs. (Justice Debra Stephens did not participate in the decision.) Writing for the majority, Justice Bobbe Bridge states that the state constitution gives municipalities the right to police their ordinances as they see fit. Rabanco and Waste Management had already been given constitutionally acceptable city waste-collection contracts. Bringing CDL waste under the umbrella of those contracts was permissible, she writes. Bridge concludes her remarks backing the city's right to set garbage policy as it deems necessary with a punt to the state appellate court, which found that "one could hardly imagine an area of regulation that has been considered to be more intrinsically local in nature than collection of garbage and refuse, upon which may rest the health, safety, and aesthetic well-being of the community." Justice Richard Sanders authored the dissent, noting: "The issue here is whether a municipality may constitutionally grant an exclusive franchise to two corporations to haul [CDL] debris while categorically denying like privilege to all others." Sanders says not only is that a problem with the state constitution, it falls afoul of the vision of founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton. Ventenbergs was represented by the Washington branch of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit that litigates against what it terms government-created monopolies. Seattle's waste-hauling contracts were right up their alley, says Bill Maurer, an attorney for the Washington chapter . The ruling, he says, is "extremely significant; it basically means that the city can proceed with closing the market for CDL hauling." But Maurer adds that the narrow scope of the decision limits such exclusivity to waste-related contracts. "The ruling was so narrow, it doesn't have much application outside of those areas." While this is a blow for Ventenbergs, other small waste collectors have made inroads into the lucrative business of city waste collection. On Sept. 26, Nina Shapiro told the story of green trash hauler Chris Martin, who ended up winning a $20 million piece of the city's collection contract in October. Of course, on the day the Supreme Court ruling came down, Houston-based megacorporation Waste Management announced that it had just received a new 10-year contract for Seattle garbage collection that expands its current residential service by 28 percent and commercial collection by 73 percent.

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