Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Food Truck Wars II: What's it look like to you?

Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? - Groucho Marx

Two scenarios:

(1) You are a business owner. The city council will be considering revisions to an ordinance that directly impacts your business. In fact, it will define how, where, and when it will operate. The ordinance will also assess fees upon your business.

Prior to the consideration of these revisions to the ordinance, the city council solicits the formal input of other groups in the city. Groups that will include businesses that compete with yours. Despite requests that your business interests be included, representatives of your business interests are not invited to participate in this part of the process.

Your competitors are asked how much you should be required to pay for a license to conduct your business. Their replies - along with their other responses - are consulted as the city council drafts the ordinance. You are informed that if you have something to say about this ordinance you must attend a public hearing to do so along with everyone else - including, of course, your competitors whose input was solicited in the drafting of the ordinance.

(2) You are a business owner. The city council is considering assessing your business fees to fund a position that services your business. The position has already been approved. Using fees to fund the position has already been approved. The only question that remains is what fees will be assessed and how much they will be.

As the city council discusses these fees, a member of the city council turns to you and asks you how you feel about those fees. Are these fees “OK” with you? You answer. You invite a colleague sitting with you to answer. That colleague asks a third colleague if he has anything to add. The city council hears all these views. They return to their deliberations weighing this direct and immediate input from you as they consider the fees you will be assessed.

Who you see is what you get

These scenarios are not hypothetical. They reflect what transpired prior to and during the March 20, 2016 Committee of the Whole meeting of the Rochester City Council. Under consideration were revisions to Chapter 143A of the Rochester City Ordinances: Food Vending on a Public Street.

Prior to the meeting the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, Rochester Downtown Alliance, and Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce were asked to submit comments to the city council. The city council delayed its deliberations until it could hear from these groups. Apparently, the Chamber did not submit a response (at least not publicly). The RCVB and RDA did.

The RCVB 2015 annual report lists as its vice chair the current city council president. Another council member employed by the RCVB is an ex officio member of its board. The RDA lists among its board members the mayor, the RCVB president, and that same council member employed by and serving as an ex officio member of the RCVB board.

When a member of the city council raised the issue that the food truck owners were not afforded the same opportunity to comment prior to the meeting as the RCVB and RDA, the city council president replied that's why the city council holds public hearings. The city council president did not offer an opinion on why it was the RCVB and RDA could not have also offered their comments at a public hearing.

For future reference

Later in that same COW meeting, the city council reviewed a text amendment to Section 60.605 of the Land Development Manual regard Neighborhood Informational Meetings. The changes appear to be a big step in the right direction. Among other things, the amendment intends to involve stakeholders - especially those directly impacted by city council actions - early in the process.

Early involvement of this sort is something to be widely encouraged as a standard practice of a transparent local government that actively engages with and empowers the community it purports to serve. We should applaud it when it happens. We should lament it when it does not. That such engagement might happen more often and more evenhandedly is something to which many in the city aspire.

Until such time as these open, fair, and inclusive engagement practices are adopted by the city, the food truck owners might want to form their own association. They might also consider offering a seat on their board to the city council president and other city council members. Couldn't hurt.

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