In recent years, people who hawked ice cream or hot dogs, taught yoga or shilled other goods and services in Los Angeles parks were effectively in the clear.
Selling their wares on city sidewalks was banned. But the city had suspended similar rules prohibiting vending in parks and beaches when the issue became entangled in two lawsuits.
Now those legal battles are over and L.A. lawmakers are poised to punish unpermitted park and beach vending once again. The City Council voted Tuesday to draw up a fresh set of rules, imposing escalating fines and even misdemeanor charges against vendors who ply their trade at parks and beaches without getting city permission.
The decision amplified the enduring debate over the virtues and problems of street vending in Los Angeles. This time around, the debate pitted those who see mobile vending as an economic lifeline vital to a diverse and thriving metropolis against others worried about the commercialization of green space and the legal risk for the city in allowing unlicensed enterprise.
As lawmakers revive the restrictions at parks and beaches, city leaders are still wrestling with the larger question of how to regulate what are estimated to be tens of thousands of vendors who make their living on L.A. sidewalks, routinely playing a cat-and-mouse game with local police. Local activists pushing to legalize the pushcarts that speckle L.A. sidewalks argued it made little sense to reinstate the ban in parks and beaches while city leaders pondered allowing sidewalk vending citywide.
"It's short-sighted," said Joseph Villela, director of policy and advocacy for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "It continues to do something that hasn't worked."
The decision also troubled some on the council, which voted 13 to 2 to draft a city ordinance reinstating the restrictions. Councilman Gil Cedillo argued that punishing repeat violators with misdemeanor charges could end up jeopardizing immigrants' chances to become citizens.
"Selling paletas — those are popsicles — selling paletas at a park should not carry a penalty that bars you from citizenship," Cedillo told fellow council members.
Backers such as Councilman Joe Buscaino said that the reinstated rules would protect the city from being sued if someone was hurt or sickened by the wares or services sold by unlicensed park vendors. "Say someone gets hurt during an unpermitted yoga class, who would be liable?" Buscaino asked Senior Assistant City Atty. Valerie Flores.
"Arguably, the city could be sued," Flores said.
Banning unpermitted vending could help defend the city from such suits, Flores said. If the city did not have the option to charge repeat offenders with a misdemeanor, she told lawmakers, vendors might continue plying their business in parks and simply pay the fines as a "cost of doing business."
Beyond worries about legal liability, others argued that parks are a kind of urban sanctuary that should be free from commercial activity. L.A.'s municipal prohibition on park and beach vending was suspended nearly a decade ago amid legal battles over vending and free speech on the Venice Beach boardwalk.
Parks officials and police said that in the years that L.A. has gone without the restrictions, it has been impossible to stop people from doing business in parks and beaches, including exercise classes blaring music in Silver Lake Meadow, a vendor offering pony rides at Hansen Dam, and people spreading out blankets to shill their wares around Echo Park Lake.
City lawyers said now that the legal battles that first spurred the city to suspend the ban are over, it was time for the city to reinstate the restrictions in parks and beaches, revising the wording to clearly protect freedom of speech. Under the rules, selling goods or services in a public park would be illegal unless the vendor got city permission to do so. However, it would be legal for someone to sell books or paintings that he or she has written or created, as well as chiefly "expressive items" such as newspapers or bumper stickers.
Flores argued that the newly reinstated ban would not undercut any broader plan to legalize and regulate sidewalk vending, since vendors could get permission to work in parks or beaches via a city license or permit. If the city did not reinstate the ban, Flores said, vendors would have no reason to seek a permit.
But members of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign argued that the parks department lacks a clear, widely understood system to grant permits to park vendors. The existing processes for allowing park vending are geared more toward large concessions, such as the boathouse cafe at Echo Park Lake, than individual peddlers pushing mobile carts.
"It's not accessible to the community," said Janet Favela, a community organizer with the East LA Community Corp.
If the ban is ultimately reinstated, "I would probably be homeless," said Deborah Hyman, a vendor who sells beaded jewelry in Leimert Park, before the hearing. "This is my income. I need it."
Attorneys are now tasked with drafting the city rules, which are expected to return to the council for approval later this week. L.A. leaders pressed forward with the plan amid yet another legal fight over vending: The city was sued earlier this year by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a religious group that alleged the parks department stonewalled its request for permission to sell T-shirts outside the Griffith Observatory and then relegated it to a small area.
In its suit, the group argued that the "unwritten policy" was "unconstitutional on its face" because "it vests unfettered discretion in city officials to grant or deny permits." Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said settlement negotiations are ongoing in that suit.