Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Street Vendors Decriminalized, as Long as They're In the Right Place at the Right Time

Sidewalk Vendors To Be Legal - so Long as They Pay Fees, collect sales taxes

On Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council voted to institute an emergency ordinance that would require sidewalk vendors to acquire licenses and permits. They would also be barred from operating in certain high-traffic zones, including the Santa Monica Pier, the Third Street Promenade and Transit Mall, Santa Monica State Beach, and Palisades Park within 500 feet of the Pier.

The council portrayed the law as humane and inclusive. It is largely in response to a new state law, SB 946, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, which decriminalizes street vending in public spaces.

Most of us are, and have always been, prohibited from selling stuff on the street. In most instances, merchandise can only be sold on the street during approved street fairs where appropriate business licenses and seller fees have been purchased.

Pop-up vendors selling churros and fruit have never been legal. But they are often immigrants. So when Trump became president, the California State Legislature feared he was going to deport as many illegal immigrants as he could find. They therefore enacted SB 946, which protected vendors - who the legislature apparently suspected were often illegal immigrants - from getting arrested for selling food on street corners.

The state law does call for cities to create their own laws to regulate the sidewalk vendors, however. But the state has placed limitations on the sort of regulations cities can impose. For example, city regulations cannot ban vendors from parks or constrain them to operate in specific areas - with a big caveat. Cities can enact such regulations if there are health, safety, or welfare concerns.

The Santa Monica City Council, while patting themselves on the back for their humanity and inclusiveness, seized eagerly on this caveat. Citing concerns about fire safety and emergency evacuation routes, they banned vendors from the places these merchants most want to operate: the Santa Monica Pier and the surrounding area in Palisades Park. In fact, the new emergency ordinance would establish two Code Enforcement officers to be dedicated to the Pier to enforce the ban on vendors there.

City staff recommends that rather than sell their goods at the Pier, vendors should station themselves on the Esplanade, the sidewalk that leads between the Expo Line State and the Pier.

It is immediately clear that the goals of the vendors and those of the City are at odds. The vendors want to station themselves where there is most traffic and most chance of making money. The City wants them stationed where there is the least traffic and, in consequence, the least opportunity to make money.

In addition to banning the vendors from the most lucrative spots, the City is requiring them to purchase a California Sellers Permit and also, if they are selling food, an L.A. County Health Permit. To ease the pain of spending the time and money on obtaining these permits, the City is promising "comprehensive public education and outreach in English and Spanish," according to a City publication. Also, a series of bilingual application workshops will be held.

To be clear, the adoption of this new ordinance shows government at some of its worst behavior. Although the government decided long ago it did not like street vendors - entrepreneurs without addresses from whom they could not collect fees or taxes and over whom they had little control - they have decided to allow such vendors. But only in order to defy a federal authority they detest. And, in 'allowing' the vendors, they are regulating them to the point they are no longer independent, pop-up street vendors. They are licensed, regulated, taxed businesses like any other. These regulations and fees are effective bars to the vendors against conducting business and making money. So, in the end, after wasting a lot of resources on government staff to study and create the new regulations, they end up doing exactly what the government was doing in the first place: banning street vendors.

In addition, for all the City's efforts to rid high-congestion areas such as the Pier of street vendors, they will not achieve very much if they do not also rid such areas (oh, heck, how about all of the City's parks) of the anti-social, insane, and drug-addicted. So far, we have heard no plans to clear our public places of individuals who behave in extremely anti-social, often frightening, and sometimes violent behavior.


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