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Majority of Council "Offended" By Street Vendor Discussion

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By Jorge Casuso

March 22, 2023 -- A seemingly innocuous item on Tuesday's agenda calling for better communication with street vendors triggered a heated debate that managed to offend the majority of the City Council.

Discussion of the item sponsored by new Councilmembers Jesse Zwick and Caroline Torosis, along with Oscar de la Torre, devolved as the midnight hour passed.

"It's now 12:56 and I've had it," said Mayor Gleam Davis, calling for a vote. "I can't believe that seven of us can't engage in a civil discourse.

"We don't need to call each other names," Davis said. "We don't need to insult each other. This has been a terrible night, and no one has comported themselves very well."

The item called on the Council to "direct the City Manager to ensure that staff engage in meaningful consultation with persons authorized to vend regarding implementation of and proposed changes to sidewalk vending policies in the City."

Zwick, who was the main author of the item, stressed that it "doesn't propose any change to our vending rules as they are now."

"We've heard a diversity of opinions about how we should regulate vending," Zwick said in introducing the item, which he said "simply seeks to put in place a system where all parties are adequately consulted."

That set off Councilmember Lana Negrete, who had made it her priority to restore order on the Pier that vendors had turned into a lawless "wild, wild west."

The item, she said, was unnecessary, since staff had worked hard to make the vending program function.

Noting she was the daughter of immigrants, Negrete added that the item was also condescending because it called for staff to enage with the vendors in a "culturally competent and linguistically appropriate manner."

"What is the point of this," Negrete said. "Is this, like, identity politics," she said, adding that most of the staff members working on the vending program "speak Spanish and are Latino."

"I hope (the item) is not a political grandstand for something that doesn't exist," she said.

Negrete said many of the vendors are breaking the law, refusing to pay fines and threatening enforcement staff with physical violence.

Some are "storing food in public restrooms and shoving trash and oil down our storm drains going out into the ocean."

"Why would we condone criminal behavior and intimidation? Just because they're Latino we're going to make a special accommodation because they're vendors?"

Councilmembers Christine Parra agreed. "I also was pretty offended by this item as someone who also has parents who immigrated here. It's offensive."

"Staff has been abused and very disrespected," Parra added, "I think we should be here defending them and putting some teeth to these policies.

Maybe you should have spoken to staff before bringing this item forward."

It was Zwick's turn to be "a little offended."

"I've had multiple conversations with City staff," Zwick said. "I took multiple tours with many vendors. I talked to a lot of different vendors who had different concerns.

"I think there are a lot of side issues that need discussing, and I wouldn't make assumptions about anybody's motivation about bringing an item."

De la Torre defended the item, noting that the City is spending $3.5 million a year to control the vending program.

"We are not retreating on the progress we've made," de la Torre said. "We can threaten (vendors with legal action, we can do a lot of things.

"Or we can try to create a culture where people become a part of that culture and that is the way they do business."

In the end, the Council directed staff on a 5 to 2 vote to "engage in ongoing dialogue with its permitted sidewalk vending community regarding several items of importance."

These include "vending cart compliance, enforcement practices, enhanced signage, expanded opportunities and zones for permissible vending, and methods of allocating designated spaces to vend."

De la Torre said staff should also explore hiring or seeking a volunteer to coordinate the program.

"Someone needs to be in charge of this," de la Torre said. "People aren't going to go away."

Parra and Councilmember Phil Brock cast the two dissenting votes.

"I'm quite offended that the makers brought this because they quite obviously haven't looked at the history and what's going on," Brock said.

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