Williamsville Gets Defensive

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I received word over the weekend that food trucks were having a tough go of it in Williamsville. A proposed statute had been crafted that would have imposed very heavy fees and untenable restrictions on food trucks, effectively banning them from operating in the Village of Williamsville, which is a separate taxing entity overlapping the towns of Amherst and Cheektowaga. 

I wrote about it here. Actually, I essentially re-crafted correspondence that the food trucks’ lawyer had sent to the Village, objecting to many of the proposals. The goal was merely to inform the public about the completely outrageous restrictions and rules being proposed in Williamsville, and to criticize them. I did not attack – by name or otherwise – any specific public official. 

Based on the reaction from three of the Village’s elected officials, you’d think I had insulted all of their mothers. 

Here is a comment from the Village’s attorney, Chip Grieco: 

First, by way of disclosure, I am the attorney for the Village. I realize this is an “opinion” piece and not a “news” article, but its important to point out that this is little more than a re-print of piece written by the attorney for the food truck association. While the author has every right to agree with the association attorney, as a journalist (as well as a lawyer, by the way) he might have wanted to at least reach out to someone at the Village or done a modicum of research before parroting these mischaracterizations.

I’m not a journalist, nor am I a lawyer representing any party in any case. I helped the food trucks fight similarly short-sighted proposed restrictions in other municipalities in the past, and am happy to help them earn the right and ability to safely and fairly ply their trade in the Village of Williamsville – a right that was at risk, based on the draft proposal. Because this is commentary, and because everything I wrote was accurate, there was no need to contact village officials. There are 44 cities, towns, and villages in Erie County, and these food trucks need to go through this costly and time-consuming process in each and every one of them in which they wish to operate. In some towns, trucks need to deal with a village government that is contained within one or more towns. 

Kevin Gaughan made a thing of this a decade ago with “the Cost”. At that time, he explained how much village governments and redundant taxing districts cost Erie County taxpayers. At the time, Buffalo had 45 local governments employing 439 elected officials. The Baltimore area, which had 77% more people, had 3 local governments with 95 elected officials.  

Williamsville did not re-write the script, and the draft local law is, substantively, nearly identical to the Town of Amherst’s law (which law does not and cannot cover the Village) in terms of application procedures and permit restrictions (except that draft the Village law stripped away the protectionist provisions and expanded the permissible hours of operation). With respect to the supposedly nefarious Myaor’s permit, the author may have wanted to take the 10 minutes of free online research it would have taken to learn that virtually all non-building code permits and licenses are issued by the Mayor under the Public Order Chapter (Ch. 73) of the VIllage Code. Why is that? Because New York State Village Law Section 4-400(1)(m) designates the Mayor as the “licensing officer” of the Village and authorizes the Mayor to “issue all licenses” in the Village. The law allows the Mayor to designate the Village Clerk as the licensing offer, but it is not the least bit unusual (and certainly not improper) for a Village Mayor to serve this statutorily-conferred role. And there is clearly a good reason for the “licensing officer” of the Village to retain discretion to ensure that the locations at which food trucks operate are safe, particularly in a highly coingested area such as Main Street in the Village of Williamsville. Another 5 minutes of online research would have also answered the author’s other critiques regarding enforcement and penalties. Chapter 1 of the Village Code clearly provides that, unless otherwise provided, all violations of the code are punishable by a fine of up to $250, imprisonment of up to 15 days, or both.

This is all a very important recitation of Village law, and the problem with discretion is that it can be abused, and any such abuse is only rectified through costly court action. According to the Buffalo News, the Village “opted out” of Amherst’s law, implying that there was a choice there. If the News is right, then the Amherst law can cover the Village, it just chose not to. But either way, the Village could have simply duplicated Amherst’s already-extant statute and simply offered trucks the predictability and uniformity they sought. Mr. Grieco’s snark seems misplaced, but speaks volumes.  

It may be true that village mayors can issue permits for yard sales and bonfires, etc., but it is essentially unprecedented and untenable for any one elected official to retain potential veto power over a business. It’s my understanding that at the public hearing held Monday night, the fee process will be revamped, the inspection scheme will be streamlined, and the Mayor will evidently issue the annual permit once those criteria are objectively met, without the possibility of arbitrary denial. Also, it appears that the proposed $50 fire prevention fee will now instead be a no-fee notification requirement that trucks fill out a form alerting the Village as to when they’ll be operating in the town. This would provide notice to fire and police services, and ensure that trucks aren’t conflicting with block parties or major events like Old Home Days.

One wonders why that sort of thing wasn’t included in the first draft, instead being a compendium of wild ideas proposed in some cases by individuals, businesses, or groups with overt hostility towards food trucks. 

The Village “Code Enforcement Officer” (crazy, right?) enforces violations of the Village Code. Amherst Police enforce violations of State law (including the V&T law) or other laws of general applicability. Last point, this is a DRAFT law, and Village welcomes input from interested persions. That is how the process is supposed to work.

No one was assailing the process. I was criticizing the substance of the proposal. But it’s notable that Mr. Grieco and Mayor Brian Kulpa (see below), opted so vigorously to defend the process, because the substance of the proposed law was apparently as indefensible as I suggested on Sunday; little more than a compendium of redundant or dumb ideas. But what of the process, now that you mention it? Perhaps it might be as flawed as the substance? Sure, the food trucks and their attorney reached out to me because they believed that they were being treated unfairly and were under assault. Monday night’s meeting went differently in part because of the efforts of people defending the food trucks, who seem to run into similarly ignorant battles with local leaderships throughout our myriad and sundry taxing districts in the region. 

A village in a region with a recent history of population shrinkage needs its own code enforcement officer, given that said village is almost wholly enveloped by a town whose own government has its own codes and its own code enforcement officer. What a chronic waste of money and effort. 

Village of Williamsville Deputy Mayor Chris Duquin had this to say, 

The Williamsville Village Board laid on the table legislation to regulate food trucks that contained a lot of provisions, inspections and fees, why? Because we wanted public input from residents, food truck owners and business in the Village about how to best protect public safety. This is exactly what government should do! In an open and transparent way we laid legislation on the table for public comment. We will listen again tonight to that public comment and will keep the public hearing open for even more public comment in the future. At some point, when we feel that we have heard allinterested parties we will deliberate in public and decide on how to best protect public safety in the Village of Williamsville. The Village board does NOT regulate commerce. We clearly understand this and will not include anything in the final legislation (unlike Amherst that tries to regulate commerce by having distances from brick and mortar restaurants, which is clearly illegal.) To be vilified in the article is disappointing. To suggest that we have not studied the City of Buffalo and Town of Amherst law is ridiculous. To suggest that we are in any way trying to protect our restaurants or stop competition in 100% false. The Village of Williamsville board is one of the most progressive in the region. We are open and transparent in everything we do. We understand that operating in this way opens us up to people with their own agendas disseminating patently false information. We will continue to live with the haters misinforming the public. Everyone is welcome to come to the Village Board meeting tonight at 7:30pm and tell us how you think we should protect public safety in the village through reasonable legislation. And when we finally approve legislation we will hope that all those that clouded a real exercise in in open government will report fairly on what we approve. – Chris Duquin, Deputy Mayor

LOL agendas. What do you think my “agenda” is, exactly? I’ll answer that: my agenda is “Lloyd’s should have the ability legally to sell tacos from a designated public parking spot, subject to reasonable fees, inspections, and time, place, and manner restrictions”. That’s my agenda, and I use Lloyd’s only as an example – the same should be true for every food truck. Quite literally anything that deviates from that simply stated “agenda” is nonsense and surplusage. It doesn’t matter how open and transparent you are if the end product is illegal, odious, or excessive. It doesn’t matter if the deputy mayor demeans criticism from denigrated “haters”, or hurls accusations of misinformation. In the end, no one said that what I wrote about the substance of the proposed statute was false – only that it was part of a “process” on which I was “hating”. 

All of this overreaction smacks of either personal animus or Williamsville considering itself to be some special geographical snowflake; that it can protect its public in a way that Amherst or Buffalo won’t or can’t. Incidentally, I don’t know whether it is illegal for municipalities to require food trucks to be a certain distance from brick and mortar restaurants – it hasn’t been tested in the courts in New York that I’m aware. But Amherst and Buffalo have this as part of their statutes, and the trucks go along with them (as long as they’re reasonable) because it’s fair, and they don’t want to be accused of poaching business from a restaurant, choosing instead to coexist peacefully with them. 

As for the bleating about openness and transparency, that’s all very laudable, of course, but it doesn’t justify or legitimize stupid provisions contained in a proposed law. So, we turn to the Village Mayor, Brian Kulpa, who engaged me on Twitter. Note the bit where he accuses me of playing “I got you”, which I wasn’t doing. Funny, given his colleagues’ condescending snark.  

On Monday Williamsville held a public hearing on the proposed food truck statute described in my piece last weekend. I wasn’t there, but apparently my name came up in the work session prior to the public hearing. Kulpa complained to Village Trustees that he and others spent a good portion of the morning having to, “set Alan Bedenko straight on Twitter”. I’m glad that my article had that impact, highlighting the Village’s proposed law and the ways in which it was unfair, onerous, and untenable. That’s why just about all of the most objectionable items will not exist in whatever follow-up statute is crafted. The earliest that the Village will vote on that won’t be until late July. Amazing, though, that I needed to be “set straight” although I accurately described what the Village was contemporaneously proposing. 

I re-read my original piece to see what I might have written that would have engendered such vituperous reaction from no fewer than three of Williamsville’s elected officials. When not offering condescending lectures about obscure laws governing redundant taxing strata, they were adamant about the fairness of their open government and transparent process. I guess here, the Village talks about it, then proposes a codification mirroring the demands made by people who voted to advocate for a ban on food trucks, then talk about it some more. Let the people decide and deliberate everything, and government merely acts as scribe and wind vane.

The only people playing “I got you” here are employed by the Village. Use whatever process you want, but when the resulting work-product is garbage, don’t be surprised when people complain. 

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