The San Benito County Board of Supervisors discussed the issue of illegal street vendors, a topic it tried to tackle with an educational approach last year.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked to revisit the topic at Tuesday’s meeting after he was contacted by a resident who allegedly sustained damage to a car in an incident with a street vendor.
“A lot of key people working on this issue are retiring and I want to make sure it remains a priority,” he said.
The supervisors first discussed illegal vendors in June when environmental health services manager Vivian Nelson brought it to the board with concerns over public health. The department’s main concern centered on vendors selling produce illegally on the side of the road. She asked for permission to send out an advisory letter to the community that would encourage residents to purchase items only from legal vendors.
“We want to send an advisory to the public to make sure when they’re choosing foods that they choose from vendors that are legal,” she said, at the initial meeting. “Each legal vendor will have a health permit and a brightly-colored sticker on the rear panel of their truck or the side of their cart.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios said that the supervisors at the time came up with several solutions, but they didn’t solve it all.
“The information was out in the paper on the issue,” she said. “There was a flier in the Sunnyslope water bill. The health department and county office of education also said they would make an effort (to inform residents.) I don’t know if it was enough.”
County Administrative Officer Rich Inman said that the education program gained a lot of momentum, but they ran into problems when it came to confiscating goods.
“Our stance on it was weak then and it’s weak now,” Supervisor Anthony Botelho said, calling for punitive measures for vendors without a permit. “We need to have a permit process…where to store the products is in the county landfill under two tons of dirt.”
Supervisor Robert Rivas said they did not pursue an enforcement policy because of the requirements of offering due process to offenders.
“I want to do it right,” Rivas said. “People are entitled to due process and we don’t have the money to enforce it.”
Penalties for selling food or other items without a permit range from a $100-per-day violation to jail time, as well as monetary penalties of up to three times the health permit fee. For example, a county health permit for a food vehicle is $198 and a permit for a mobile food prep unit – such as a catering truck – costs $302. At the time of the original discussion, County Counsel Matthew Granger said that the issue was “decidedly complex.”
Vendors suspected of operating without a business license or health permit are “entitled to a hearing and due process” if the items they are peddling are confiscated by health or law enforcement officials, he noted.
“The county can’t impound food and have it spoil or throw it away” before such a hearing, Granger said previously. “You have to promote a meaningful remedy.”
However, with no hearing officer available to hear the cases or a storage facility in place to store confiscated food, “there is no ability to conduct the due process required under law.”
County planning director Gary Armstrong said that his department does have a cease and desist letter that they can give out in English and Spanish to illegal vendors.
“They have 30 minutes to comply before the sheriff or code enforcement get involved,” Armstrong said. “But they are often dropped off (from outside the county) and they have no way to leave the area and no identification. It tries to get them to move along as quickly as possible. We do try.”
Muenzer suggested that the issue be further discussed at the intergovernmental committee meeting since it is an issue on which the city and county would need to collaborate.
“I want to work with the city, but if it gets bogged down, we need to do some kind of enforcement,” he said.