Members of the Facebook group Columbia MO Citizens for Roll Carts have begun collecting signatures on an initiative petition that, if successful, would allow voters to decide whether the Columbia City Council can consider switching to roll carts for trash and recycling collection.

The group would like to place the issue on the April ballot.

Amy Belcher and Rachel Proffitt created the Facebook group in July after the city announced that it would suspend recycling collection indefinitely. It has since gained 1,700 members. The city was forced to suspend recycling due to severe staffing shortages.

“My motivation for roll carts has always been worker safety, first and foremost,” Belcher said. “When diving into the process and talking with city leaders, I was able to see the dire financial situation the solid waste utility is in. Now, my motivation is still worker safety but also includes maintaining our trash service as a city entity.”

The group started the petition process after the City Council voted against placing a measure in the November ballot that would allow the city to consider switching to roll carts.

The council voted 3-3 on the measure at its Aug. 17 meeting, with Mayor Brian Treece, First Ward Councilwoman Pat Fowler and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala opposing it. Council members Mike Trapp, Matt Pitzer and Besty Peters of the Second, Fifth and Sixth wards, respectively, favored the ordinance. Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, who had said previously he would support putting the issue to a vote, was absent from the meeting.

The petition, created by Belcher and Proffitt with the help of legal council, calls for “a repeal of sections 22-159(F), 22-159(G), 22-159.1(D) and 22-159.1(E) of the city code prohibiting the use of residential roll carts and automated refuse collection vehicles for roll carts.”

The sections to be repealed became a part of the city code in 2016 after a similar citizen-led petition initiative, which opposed roll carts, collected enough signatures for the issue to be placed on the ballot. Citizens voted 54-46% in favor of the proposition, which also included a six-month moratorium on any discussion of roll carts by city government or any effort by the council to overturn the new ordinance.

The six-month moratorium is now over, but the ordinance remains. In order to consider the use of roll carts and automated collection, the city code must be amended and the ordinance repealed.

Skala at the Aug. 17 meeting said he opposed the council putting the measure on the ballot because the ordinances on the books are the result of a citizens’ initiative. Any move to reverse that, he said, should also come from citizens.

This is what the Columbia MO Citizens for Roll Carts’ petition aims to do.

Proffitt posted instructions to the Facebook group on how advocates can volunteer and collect signatures for the petition. Volunteers are encouraged to go door-to-door to collect signatures.

“Normally we would have more people collecting signatures. Not everybody likes when people go door-to-door, especially during a pandemic,” Proffitt said, “Everybody going door-to-door is going to wear a mask, carry hand sanitizer, and really we’re just going to try our best.”

Under the city charter, the petition needs 3,219 signatures in order to make it onto the ballot in April. That would be equal to 20% of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election.

“We’re going to try to collect as many signatures as we can,” Proffitt said. “The lofty goal is to collect enough to have this on the April ballot. The ultimate deadline is the end of December, but in order to give the city clerk time to review it, our deadline is October.

The question of roll cart use in Columbia is a long-standing issue with passionate voices on both sides. Belcher and Proffitt are expecting opposition to their petition but plan to share information with opponents in an effort to change their perspective.

“I’m hopeful that the opposition will see two points: that there are programs in place for the elderly and disabled to ensure their refuse can still be collected. Also, that the needs and safety of the employees, and the department as a whole, are far more important than perceived thoughts on the aesthetics of the roll carts themselves,” Belcher said.

Kim Parker is a member of the Solid Waste Advocacy Group but said in an interview with the Missourian that she was speaking for herself and not for the group. She noted that the city has said the start-up costs for acquiring automated trucks and providing households with roll carts would be about $12 million.

Utilities Director David Sorrell has said some of those costs would be recovered by trading in existing trucks, reducing worker compensation claims and temporary worker expenses, and eliminating the need to distribute trash bags.

Parker said the city would have to distribute three roll carts per household to accommodate trash and recycling collection. That, she said, amounts to 100,000 roll carts across the city.

“It is a matter of fact, of not only how we want our city to look, but how we want it to function.”

Proffitt is confident the petitioners will make their deadline.

“I think we can do it. I think we’ve seen the support of people wanting to push this forward,” Proffitt said. “The trash collection workers, they’re pushing for this. I want to support them as best we can. Make it a better system for everybody.”

  • City and County reporter. I am currently studying investigative journalism and political science. Reach me at gaap8b@mail.missouri,edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Public Life reporter, Fall 2020 Studying investigative journalism Email me at djsv5z@umsystem.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • I've been a reporter and editor at Missouri community newspapers for 35 years and joined the Columbia Missourian in 2003. My emphasis at the Missourian is on local government and elections. You can reach me at swaffords@missouri.edu or at 573-884-5366.

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