By David Pendered
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration has two weeks to come up with some solid proposals to get sidewalk vendors back to work.
The apparently frustrated members of the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously Tuesday for a motion calling on Reed’s staff to deliver by May 14 a solid recommendation of a vending ordinance.
“We are dealing with the actual human element of people losing their livelihood because of the inaction of the city,” committee Chair Michael Julian Bond said. “I don’t believe it is difficult to resolve this issue.”
The vote followed a presentation by David Bennett, a senior policy advisor to the mayor. Bennett said there was “no way to predict” when the administration will deliver a recommended vending ordinance.
Bennett said the administration expects to take the first step toward resolution in May, by delivering a plan to handle the ownership of kiosks left over from the city’s former vending program. That vending program, approved in 2008, involved a contract with a retail manager to oversee the vending program. A Fulton County judge invalidated the program in December.
Councilperson Ivory Lee Young Jr. likened that deal to servitude for the vendors.
“Anyone raised in the south knows what sharecropping is all about,” Young said. “And that’s what General Growth really was.”
General Growth Properties had the contract that was invalidated last year. The company is a national real estate investment trust that runs shopping centers. In metro Atlanta, the company has Cumberland Mall, Perimeter Mall, and North Point Mall.
As Young’s observation suggests, sidewalk vending is a highly charged issue in Atlanta – both emotionally and politically.
Vendors portray their trade as the noble, first rung of the economic ladder, one that’s accessible to wounded veterans, the handicapped, and the disabled. Vendors – who have the ears of countless voters – are said to have measurable influence in city elections, such as the one later this year when all seats on the council and the mayor’s office are up for grabs.
Some vendors run unsightly operations, according to several vendors who spoke. Atlanta’s downtown civic leaders have been working for years to improve the vendors’ presentations. A great effort was made to improve the program before Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Bennett said that once the administration resolves issues around the kiosks, it expects to, “be in a place of clean slate where we can restart vending from ground zero.”
Bond wasn’t inclined to give Reed’s administration any more time. Nor were the vendors who showed up for the Public Safety Committee meeting. The topic generated more than two hours of debate in a meeting that ended after 7 p.m.
Larry Miller is a vendor who filed the lawsuit that overturned the city’s previous vending ordinance. When he approached the podium to speak, he brought a woman said to be blind whose only source of income was her vending business.
Miller declined to respond to questions from Councilperson Cleta Winslow about his motives for filing the lawsuit, rather than working to improve the program.
“I was raised by God fearing parents, I’m a child of God before anything,” Miller said. “We got bad liquor stores, we got bad hotels – but we don’t shut them down. … Put an ordinance into place. Let us go back to work. Let us vend.”
Bond responded by saying Bennett was supposed to present the administration’s recommendations at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Today was supposed to be the day we were supposed to get a report on what we thought was going to be revealed two months ago, before the police cleaned the sidewalks off [of vendors],” Bond said. “Something needs to happen more immediately than over the next several months.”
After the vote, Bond said: “Mr. Bennett, this is a hard deadline. We want to hear what proposal you’re putting together. It has become necessary to resolve this problem.”