Peddler Patrol : Glendale Is Cracking Down on Unlicensed Street Vendors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Once they recognize you, they see you coming a mile away," said Maria Maldonado, one of Glendale's three, full-time license inspectors, as she eased a city-owned car to the curb.

Maldonado was on her daily rounds--looking for violators of the city's street vending ordinance, adopted a year ago with strict rules and stiff penalties.

She had spotted a white bus converted into a rolling produce market, parked just ahead in the 400 block of East California Street. "Fruits," the sign advertised. Business was booming.

The inspector's routine stop was part of the city's stepped-up enforcement of the rules, launched this summer after complaints about violators rose from just a couple a month to more than 30, officials said.

Maldonado was a little bolder this particular day. Normally she would have parked far away from the bus because most vendors in town recognize the car that she usually drives--her own maroon Chrysler LeBaron. But they wouldn't be suspicious of a white city car, she thought.

The inspector was close enough to see a vendor's decal on the rear of the bus. It was a good sign. This peddler was licensed.

She noted the time, 12:35 p.m. She would wait to see if the mobile merchant would violate a city rule that he move within 15 minutes.

Shoppers could be seen inside the bus, leisurely selecting fruits and vegetables. More women--some tugging along tots, others elderly--emerged out of nearby homes and apartments and headed for the mobile market.

But Maldonado was soon detected. A customer on the way to the bus noted the city seal on the car, then hurried to warn the vendor. Both the merchant and his assistant studied the car and its driver, then closed up shop within the allotted time.

Slowly, the bus turned around in the street and headed back toward the inspector. As he passed, the driver played a tune on his musical horns. It was a whimsical gesture, the first six notes from "Polly-Wolly-Doodle":

Fare thee well

Fare thee well

Maldonado smiled and nodded, acknowledging the taunt.

"Just our presence out here reminds them of the rules," Maldonado said. "Otherwise, they could stay for hours in a single spot and that creates horrendous problems, real havoc."

She said the number of vendors has swelled, particularly in the neighborhoods of the city's two main ethnic groups--Armenians and Latinos.

Two main approaches are used to market goods.

Trucks and vans bring fruit and vegetables into a neighborhood. Prepared foods are served from catering trucks. Word of their location quickly spreads, drawing crowds of customers, some of whom drive to the location and double-park while they do their shopping or order food, Maldonado said.

The other approach is peddlers pushing carts filled with fruits, vegetables, ice cream, wares and such Latin delicacies as paletas (Mexican Popsicles) and elotes (corn sticks).

The enforcement isn't designed to eliminate vendors, but force them to follow the rules.

Currently, 150 vendors have Glendale city licenses, which expired July 1 and must be renewed by Aug. 10. That includes 132 vendors with motorized vehicles and 18 with pushcarts, including ice cream and hot dog vendors.

The previous annual license fee of $36 was raised last year to $100 for a pushcart and $300 for a mobile vending company, plus $50 per truck. Despite the higher price, the number of licensed vendors in the city has increased about 25% in the last year, records show.

A portion of the increased revenue was used to hire the third city inspector, said City Clerk Aileen B. Boyle, whose department handles the license and enforcement program.

In response to an increasing number of complaints about vendors, the city this summer announced a crackdown on violators and asked the public to help. Although statistics are not yet available, Maldonado estimates that the three inspectors are issuing a total of about 12 citations a day.

Motorized vendors are allowed to stay in one spot for only 15 minutes and cannot return to the same spot for at least three hours. They cannot park on private property, such as in a driveway, or sell from a truck parked in front of their own house.

Pushcarts can be used door-to-door only, unless a zoning exemption has been granted to sell from a special location, such as a private plaza in a downtown office location. No pushcart vendors are allowed to sell from the sidewalk or street.

Selling within two blocks of a park or school also is prohibited. "There were so many vendors in the parks that they were taking over" before the new law was passed, Boyle said.

Despite the recent adoption of stiff rules by cities such as Glendale and Burbank, vendors plying neighborhoods and shopping centers are becoming more common. "The number of new vendors in just the past three or four months is phenomenal," said Wayne Sugarman, who operates a commissary in Van Nuys for hot dog carts.

He said 70% of his clients have gone into the hot dog cart business just since April. Most, who spend from $5,000 to $10,000 for a cart and initial supplies, are from Armenia or Third World countries. "They know about vending," Sugarman said. "It's a part of their culture."

Glendale officials said they recognize the cultural significance of street peddlers. "They're performing a service for many people and they are trying to make a living," Boyle said. "Our office does its best to accommodate them within the guidelines. We just don't want them to encroach on anybody else. They should not be a detriment to established businesses."

Maldonado said the resurgence of mobile vending, which was common up until the 1960s, "is neat, in a way." She said she remembers visiting her aunt in Mexico "where everything you can think of is sold on the streets. You just go out the front door and buy a watermelon."

But a watermelon peddler in Glendale last week was issued a citation. She did not have a license and was selling in front of a park.

Violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $500 and/or a jail term of up to six months. Initial citations, however, generally are treated as infractions, with fines of $25 or $50, said Ron R. Braden, senior assistant city attorney. He estimates that 95% of the citations are issued to first-time offenders, indicating that they are new to the city and unfamiliar with its rules.

License investigators remind vendors of the rules by handing out sheets of fluorescent green paper with guidelines spelled out in English, Spanish and Armenian.

But reprimands are not always easily accepted by peddlers, city license investigators said. Carole Fullerton, a five-year veteran, said one angry vendor that she had ticketed grabbed her by the shoulders and began shaking her as his customers yelled at her in Armenian. "Luckily, I didn't understand what they were saying."

Fullerton said she was scared, but she handled the situation by staying calm and talking in a low voice. "When you stay calm, they kind of settle down," she said. "We all get upset if we get a ticket."

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