The Great Downtown Litter Controversy :

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March 5, 2002 // UPDATED 1:15 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Sometimes, it takes an out-of-towner to get the locals' attention.

A couple of years ago, entertainer Bette Midler came to town and drove by a Downtown construction zone. "She got up on the stage and said Minneapolis was the filthiest city she'd ever been in," recalled Susan Young. "That really cranked up the Great Litter Controversy."

That hit Young where she works; she's the city's director of Solid Waste and Recycling -- or, as she dubs herself, The Trash Lady.

Is Downtown a cesspool of filth? Sandy Nelson speaks for many when she says yes.

Nelson works in the Warehouse District. She is incensed at the change she has seen in Downtown since the 1960s when she moved here. "When I moved to Minneapolis this was probably the cleanest city that I'd ever been in. Now I think it's one of the worst," Nelson said.

Public-policy consultant Mark Oyaas, a Downtown worker since 1978, agrees. "It just continues to get filthier and filthier," said Oyaas. "It's a civic pride thing in some ways. If you walk around those parking lots between 6th and Washington - all of them are just covered with litter. It's filthy. No one has to go out and pick up."

But there IS a dirty-Downtown controversy because others disagree -- categorically. Megan Happel, who works at Marshall Field's, 700 Nicollet Mall, has not had the same experience as Nelson and Oyaas. "I don't really find it dirty at all," Happel said. "I typically see street cleaners in the morning and people watering plants in the summertime. I think it's very lovely."

Louise Dickmeyer, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Happel. "I've always thought that Downtown Minneapolis was a pretty well-kept city. It's far above the rest," she said.

In Nelson's Downtown, she hardly has to walk a block before stumbling upon trash, she said. "It's broken bottles, cigarette butts, vomit and condoms. It's horrible."

City to blame? Nelson blames a lack of city services for the litter problem. "I think our taxes are going primarily for basic city services. I would consider (trash collection) a basic city service -- cleaning up the streets too," she said. She admonishes a city of Minneapolis campaign dubbed "Adopt a Litter Container" as "the most idiotic piece of public policy I have ever heard of."

That's Young's department; she started the "Adopt a Litter Container" program, which she said grew out of budget shortfalls.

Young explained that in 1995, the division of solid waste and recycling stopped receiving money from the city's general fund and started receiving money from the city's enterprise fund. It sounds like meaningless bureaucratese, but Young said the distinction matters a lot.

Enterprise funds can only be used to benefit those from whom the funds are raised, i.e. residential customers who pay for garbage collection on their utility bill. "Litter containers are not in areas where I have residential customers," Young said. "To comply with the state auditor I had to make sure that the all the funds in this division were going to directly benefit those who were paying for them -- the people who were actually paying the solid waste and recycling fee."

In order to keep the now un-funded litter containers on the street, Young implemented the "Adopt a Litter Container" program, where anyone can ask to have a litter container in front of their property free of charge. If they want the city to empty it once a week they pay $12 a month; twice a week, $24; and three times a week, $36.

"Everybody wasn't happy with it. It's really hard to please all the people all the time," Young said.

Then Midler came to town. Suddenly, more people weren't pleased.

So last year, the City Council decided that litter containers needed to be resurrected en masse. Said Young, "They passed an action. Since I do what the Council says, we have litter containers at every intersection Downtown, at every bus stop in the commercial corridors and at every bus shelter," Young said.

Litterers need to give a hoot But people such as Nelson still aren't happy. City officials explain that filth on the sidewalks isn't their responsibility -- they only sweep the streets. "A lot of people think the city is responsible for sidewalks and we're not -- the property owners are," said Mike Kennedy, director of field services for the Public Works department.

Even if there were a litter container every two feet and the city washed the sidewalks hourly, many think it wouldn't be enough. "Somehow we've lost the idea that people are responsible for getting litter in the trash can," said Tom Hoch, head of the Historic Theatre Group, which manages the city-owned State and Orpheum Theatres and will soon assume responsibility for the renovated Mann/Pantages Theater at 7th and Hennepin. "We need to have trash cans available. But the people who live, work and play in Minneapolis need to be responsible for not contributing to the litter and for picking it up when they see it."

Young agrees that a public-relations campaign similar to the Woodsy Owl "Give a hoot. Don't pollute" campaign of the 1970s is needed. "We need a massive anti-litter education program that says to people, this is a classy place -- act classy," Young said. "We have not done any education in almost three [decades] teaching people that throwing litter on the ground is bad."

Police have bigger messes to clean up Littering is actually a misdemeanor in Minneapolis, but arresting someone for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground is easier said than done. "People aren't going to call 911 when someone drops a candy wrapper at 5th and Hennepin," said Luther Krueger, crime-prevention specialist with the Minneapolis Police Downtown Command. "Taking a squad out of service because of a gum wrapper -- usually, most people don't want to do that."

According to Krueger, the Downtown Command wrote 66 tickets for littering in the past 12 months. Many of those tickets were written in conjunction with other crimes. "If someone's drinking on the street and drops the bottle, we might tag them for littering," Krueger said.