My attention was called by someone who was there to the waning minutes of the Little Rock Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, when Director Ken Richardson took the mike to ask for a reminder for the board about a policy directive concerning contact between directors and city departments.
Directors, in theory, are supposed to work through the city manager or department heads, not directly with staff members, and not micromanage city government. Policy making, not management, is the ideal.
But, said Richardson, he'd been contacted recently by food cart vendors in his ward who said they'd been "repeatedly targeted" for inspections or observation by the city and he suspected another member of the board was responsible. "Every time they're inspected they get a clean bill of health," Richardson said. But he added that the vendors, all Latinos, said they were beginning to feel "some form of discrimination" was at work. "I'd like to look at this before it becomes a serious liability for us."
I talked further about this Thursday with Richardson, who declined to identify specific complainants. They fear retaliation, he said. I asked City Manager Bruce Moore for a record of requests on taco truck inspections. He later provided a three-year list of violations by traveling food vendors that showed only two in 2013, neither for a Latino vendor. I haven't heard back from Moore, however, on my followup question: whether there was a record on the specific complaint Richardson made — multiple visits to vendors who were NOT guilty of any rule violations.
Richardson said he couldn't say where the complaints have originated. Since he suspected a city director is responsible for inspection requests, I turned first to at-large Director Joan Adcock. Adcock is known for aggressive involvement in City Hall business. She rose to political power from Southwest Little Rock, a big chunk of which Richardson now represents and home to many taco trucks and wagons. She once was an opponent of a Latino nightclub in the rapidly changing neighborhood, now heavily minority after beginnings as a working class white community. She is not particularly noted for sympathy on minority issues. She was a student at Central High during the 1957 school crisis and has been cool to events commemorating that episode, including a symbolic city board repeal of a pro-segregation resolution approved by the city board more than 50 years ago.
I sent Adcock questions and left her a phone message. Late last night, I got an e-mail response that said, "Sorry I am so late it has been a very busy day. I am not the person you are looking for."
Richardson said the person responsible is less important than the action itself.
Sure, city directors have broad portfolio — and a 1st Amendment right — to go to anyone in city government with a complaint about a city business.
But, said Richardson, special requests for city inspections "create confusion for staff, add workload and are ridiculous," he said. More broadly, he said that the message of the repeat visits is, "You're not welcome here, even if you're playing by the rules."
Richardson, himself a graduate and former student body president at Central High, says the city regularly observes anniversaries of the triumph of the rule of law in Little Rock in the school crisis. "We talk about how far we've come. These kinds of actions are a stark reminder that we might have farther to go to move our city to a level we want to move."
He said city pressure on Latino vendors comes as the city school district deals with allegations that it has been insensitive to bullying of Latino students. "I don't want that same kind of activity or perception from city government," he said.
Richardson and I agree on a purely personal level about the gravity of equal treatment of taco trucks. He says he likes them as much as I do. For illustration, I've used one of our file photos of my favorite taco wagon, Taqueria Samantha, which sets up on Geyer Springs Road in Richardson's ward. He tells me that it's his favorite, too. (Steak quesadilla for him; carnitas burrito for me.) He said he'd checked with Samantha's operator and it has not been a target of recent inspections. But he said the advent of warmer weather and more activity at the food carts seemed to have spurred the scrutiny.
"Specific targeting of Hispanic food vendors is a bad practice," Richardson said. "I don't want us to get in the bad habit of — or being perceived as — practicing discrimination."
UPDATE: Director Adcock responded further to a followup question I posed after receiving her brief response last night. She says she HAS gotten involved in vendor issues in the past, though not recently. She writes:
I am saying I have not lately been involved in this. I did not know you were asking ever ever. Last summer it was a big concern of SWLR United for Progress and there was discussion in several of the meetings in SWLR. One member who works for the State Health Dept. was concerned and I think she talked to them about it. I talked with Mr. Moore and Mr. Day and I think even the Mayor. The discussions were not only on Mexican Vendors but also people selling shoes, purses, pictures and other things on the corners and vacant lots in SWLR. This was a big concern of the businesses in the area as well as the trash that was left to blow into the streets and areas. I also asked that the ones on Asher and John Barrow be checked for permits and permission to be there. There may have been some other areas. Several I think did not have city permits. The requirement to have a health department permit to get a city permit was changed I think about that time. I think I also requested that some of the zoning officers work on Sat. to help clean up this selling on vacant lots and parking lots of businesses that are closed on week ends.
Given that response, I'll include the full three-year list if violations provided by Bruce Moore. Again, I don't have a record of visits made to vendors who were in compliance with all permit and other requirements.
This is what was provided by staff related to mobile food vendor violations.
10903 Kanis Rd.; Sept. 2012; E J's BarBQ; violation of peddler guidelines; complied
10903 Kanis Rd.; Jan. 2013; fresh Gulf Shrimp; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied
500 Blk. Clinton Ave.; March 2012; Melonie Aquino Grills on Wheels; violation of peddlers guidelines; Citation issued; nol prossed in court; complied
600 Blk. Gaines; Oct. 2012; Hot Dog and Watermelon sales; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied
#4 Inlet Dr.; March 2013; Louis Wimbley; Wimbley's Grill on Wheels; parking commercial vehicle/trailer in residential zone; current case
2503 Allis; June 2012; Jackie Ray Jackie's Mobile Cafe; parking commercial vehicle/trailer in residential zone; complied
9401 Col. Glenn; May 2012; Tacos Aldama; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied
8521 Tedburn; March 2011; Larry Johnson Turkey Leg; parking commercial vehicle/trailer in residential zone; citation issued; court issued fine; complied
36th and barrow; Nov. 2012; Harold Moore selling fish; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied
36th and barrow; Nov. 2012; unknown; selling fruit and vegetables; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied
Asher and Taylor; Nov. 2012; Milton Hughes BarBQ man; violation of peddlers guidelines; complied