Friday, September 12, 2014

DC Mayoral race, 2014, Catania and Schwartz Views on Small Entrepreneurs/Street Vendors (1998)

Since I am currently a candidate in the November 2014 election for Chairman of the DC Council, people have asked for more details on my experience.  The article below, which is based on the Candidate Questionnaire I wrote regarding vending is an example.
Recent developments are added in brackets [2014.....].

Responses of Current DC Mayoral Candidates David Catania and Carol Schwartz to an earlier questionnaire about Street Vending laws and DCRA practices (DCMR 24).

Two years ago when I was running for At Large, City Counsel, I listed as one of my accomplishments: “Served 3 years on Mayor's Task Force on Street Vending. Strongly support promoting and protecting small entrepreneurs and workers rights and needs. Will also work to improve and expand modern vocational education and training as well as employment opportunities for 'returned citizens'” We met once a week for 3 hours, I estimate spending more than 500 hours, unpaid, on meetings and secretarial duties.

Actually, it was two task forces with two mayors running from about 1994 through 1997. Our struggle as vendor members was to prevent the destruction of vending as a viable income and business opportunity for low income DC residents. For those who had served time, it was also work that did NOT require checking the box that asked, “Have you ever been arrested/convicted.”

In previous years there had been as many as 7,000 licensed vendors, by the time DCRA and other bureaucrats got finished, about 1700 vendors remained, many of them downtown or truck vendors. For many years trucks bearing produce had traveled through poorer underserved neighborhoods bring fresh fruit and vegetables. That has been forbidden, to the nutritional harm of those areas.

One of the saddest things I saw was an elderly, frail African American man who would drag his chair to Connecticut Ave, and sit on his little box of shoe shine materials waiting for the occasional customer. We would chat and he said he earned $20 or $30 a day (l990s). It wasn't much, but it enabled him to survive and he took pride in giving a fine shoe shine. His kind of operation was eliminated, I hope HE wasn't.

We were severely disappointed in the response of both mayors to all our hard work and creative ideas. We organized and formed a group called DC Vendors United. We also started a publication “Vendors' Voice For Victory.” For the November 1998 election we sent questionnaires to DC candidates for Mayor, City Council and Congress.

Two of the people who answered then are current Mayoral candidates DAVID CATANIA and CAROL SCHWARTZ. I thought you might be interested in seeing their responses and thinking in 1998, as you make your voting decisions for this November 2014.

Here are informative excerpts that were printed in the October 1998 issue of VVV.

Dear Candidate:                               October 15, 1998

     If you are successful this November in your election campaign, you will have an important opportunity to bring economic wellbeing and justice to our City. We are writing to make you aware of certain problems blocking prosperity for our lowest income entrepreneurs and to enlist your support and ideas for correcting these problems.
There has been a steady erosion of the rights and economic opportunities of licensed D.C. Street vendors, to the point that now only 30% of vendors are D.C. Residents. There has also been a reduction in the total number of about 65% to 75% over the past 15 years, this at a time when legislators have cried high and low that we need to get more people off welfare.
     The Holland and Knight consultants hired by the Control Board to evaluate the Brazil Bill on regulatory reform have stated that vending is “one of a number of small business enterprises that the District should encourage” and it offers “an entry point for small businesses with low capital requirements.” Their report further states that vending “can benefit consumers by offering goods at lower prices and convenient locations” and “bring a sense of vitality and diversity to the city and improve the quality of city life.”
     We would very much like to know your views and ideas concerning vending legislation and oversight.... We hope we can work together to enhance a positive micro business climate in our City. {Catania answered all questions, Schwartz answered 3, but apparently we did not receive additional answers from her. Candidate answers will appear below each question.}


1. Several years ago the vending squad was disbanded and several police officers were convicted and/or retired without loss of benefits in the wake of allegations of corruption.
          QUESTION: If, in fact, such corruption continues to operate in the police or other regulatory agencies, what would you want to do about it legislatively, and in an oversight capacity? [2014—Despite asking for an accounting of payments received for licenses and $1500 Fee in Lieu of Taxes, for 4 years, we were never provided this information. We were particularly concerned because much of this was paid in cash.]
     Catania—Last March, I introduced a piece of legislation which would create an elected Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Currently, the District's felonies and major misdemeanors are prosecuted by a Presidentally appointed U.S. Attorney, who is not accountable to the residents of the District. My proposal would create an elected Attorney General for the District that would have greater prosecutorial powers and would focus on corruption and governmental integrity issues. In person he explained the advantage of this system is that the AG would be a watchdog and power center separate from the Mayor. Since the AG would be a potential competitor for the Mayor's office, the Mayor would be under greater pressure to perform well and honestly.
     [2014—At long, long last we are actually having our FIRST election of our own Attorney General in November. Thank you Mr. Catania.]

2. There have been persistent problems with special events vending, wherein licensed (fee and tax paying) D.C. vendors have been forced off their customary vending spots, sometimes even when they have been promised this would not happen. In addition whole streets have been sold off to outsiders, who then sold small spaces to other outside vendors at inflated prices. [2014—We also never received an accounting of how much was received from these sales, and to whom payments were made.]
          QUESTION: What should be done to ensure that D.C. vendors (who spend their revenues in our own community) have a full opportunity to participate in special events?
     Catania—A preference should be given to vendors who have a customary vending spot for special events. Special event organizers should not be permitted to usurp the customary vending spots of D.C. vendors. DCRA regulations should be written to ensure that D.C. vendors are not closed out of special events.

3. A related trend has occurred with our community festivals. Overwhelming popularity forced the Hispanic Festival out of Adams Morgan and down to the Mall. This has also happened to the Gay Pride Celebration. This year the Georgia Ave. and Adams Morgan Day Festivals were harmed when faced with charges for police services that were 10 times those ascribed to the MCI Center for their daily police overtime.
          QUESTION: How can we protect and enhance the community nature of our local festivals, and maintain opportunities for cultural interaction, local small entrepreneurs, charitable organizations, and licensed street vendors?
     Catania—The festivals that are mentioned in the question simply became too big for the respective communities in which they were previously held. Public safety concerns forced the relocation of these events to larger spaces. I prefer the festivals to take place in our neighborhoods. One way to encourage other events is to offer police protection—and other city services—free of charge to event organizations. Often these costs make it prohibitively expensive to host such events and therefore discourage them.

4. There have been problems in the past year with the open air vending at Eastern Market, and most recently at the popular flea market on Wisconsin Avenue. It seems that such venues are being systematically threatened or downsized. We recently discovered that a proposal from the manager of the Eastern Market sidewalk vending to establish a short term flea market on the vacant Mt. Vernon Square site languished in a D.C. Government office for 2 years with no action.
          QUESTION: What can you and this City do to expand these well-received small markets, and enhance the economic empowerment of these small part-time and full-time vendors and craftspeople?
     Catania—The best thing the City Council and DCRA can do is to be responsive toward vendor and community requests for greater open air vending. I happen to shop at the Farmer's Market in Dupont Circle and find it to be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. I suspect DCRA does not make it easy for such open air vending enterprises to be established or to succeed. DCRA needs to be more responsive to the desires of communities for these activities.
     [2014—Given that Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has been chairing the committee overseeing DCRA, I am wondering whether there have been any improvements under her supervision?]

5. Over the years there have sometimes been conflicts between local merchants, elements of the community, and vendors; such as in Adams Morgan and Alabama Ave., S.E. Vendors have expressed the willingness to support financially a Vendors Commission that could resolve issues involving vendors, fixed site businesses, the community, and the government.
          QUESTION: How would you respond to establishing such a commission, and what other ideas do you have regarding resolving such issues?
     Catania—I am a little concerned about establishing a Vendors Commission given the past history of certain commissions. For example, the Taxi Commission was established in part to help address concerns of drivers, but it has arguably evolved into a body which protects the industry and not the dirvers. I believe that DCRA can establish standards of practice and can then arbitrate conflicts within and administrative proceeding within the Agency without establishing another Commission.
     [2014—Did DCRA ever establish such practices, and if so has it worked, or should this issue be revisited with 16 years hindsight?]

6. The Recreation Dept. is one of the few direct responsibilities remaining to the Mayor [because of the Control Board], and by inference to the City Council.
QUESTION: Accordingly, what creative use could be made of Recreation Dept. space to enhance community economic empowement wih local flea markets and entrepreneurial activities?
Catania—I have not given this issue much thought, but I would be very willing to meet with vendors and the respective communities affected by their proposals to encourage this activity.

7. The Holland &Knight Report came out against the moratorium on new vending licenses and recommended reviewing the ending of vending around the MCI Center.
          QUESTION: Are you willing to sponsor or support emergency legislation to immediately lift these restrictions as recommended?
     Schwartz—I would certainly consider legislation to lift the moratorium on new licenses and the prohibition against vending around the MCI Center because I wholeheartedly believe in free market competition.
     [2014--Sixteen years later there is still no vending at the MCI Center which presents a sterile exterior. And I believe the moratorium on new vendors is also still in effect.]

8. In the past decade a number of lucrative RFP's have been contracted out regarding street vending and economic development. Their results have seldom been acted upon to assist street vending, community development, or economic empowerment, although they have benefited consulting firms.
          QUESTION: What can you as an elected official do to shift this economic gain to the community rather than to outside consultants?
     Catania—I am not a fan of consultants. In my opinion, the District has spent a lot of money over the past few years on consultants with very little to show for it. I don't believe in government by consultants. We know who the interested parties are and we should bring them together to resolve mutual concerns.
     Schwartz—It has been a long-standing practice of my to support local businesses. When you are looking to find out about a city, you should first look to the city. As an elected official, I have always supported going with the best-qualified contractor, to get the job done. Some qualities the winning contractor should have are experience, knowledge of street vending in Washington, D.C., focus points for economic development in our city, and knowledge of our people. These characteristics are not usually found in a stranger; these are usually found in a neighbor.
     [2014—Unfortunately the vendor friendly Holland and Knight recommendations were not implemented. Was money spent on their consulting a total waste?]

9. An unexpected proposal has just surfaced from the Control Board to auction all street vending spaces to the highest bidder. Previously, City officials have said they want to make street vending more like other public space based businesses. Currently sidewalk cafes pay $5/sq.ft./year often enclosing and heating their space. Sidewalk vendors can occupy a maximum of 31.5 sq.ft., and must remove their stand daily, and have no weather protection. We fear this is part of a plan to allow corporate vendors with permanent kiosks to set up showcase, loss-leader vending operations.
          QUESTION: What is your position on this attempt to auction the people's streets to the highest bidder?
     Catania—I do not have a position on this issue. I am inclined to favor the continuation of the current system because it provides modest income individuals a chance to own their own businesses. My fear is that auctioning off sites would discourage new vendors.
     Schwartz—I have always supported our local businesses. It is not our place to drive business out of our city; it is our place to provide an atmosphere where local business can flourish. Any proposed change to the existing vending system must be looked at very closely and I would seek input from individual vendors before making any decisions on this proposed change or any other.
     [2014—Apparently this particular corporate grab was shot down, although having witnessed the recent Walmart controversy it is hardly a dead issue. Alas, even though the sidewalk vending sites are not auctioned new vendors are thoroughly discouraged by the moratorium.]

NOTE:  I particularly look forward to comments from vendors on the current state of street vending and recent DCRA and police treatment of vendors.

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