Jersey City Backs Away from Revisions to Food-Trucks Law

A long-awaited proposal to revise Jersey City’s law governing food truck and street carts was tabled Wednesday night by the City Council after food vendors made an impassioned plea to defend their businesses from what they saw as misguided legislation. The ordinance was tabled by a vote of 8 to 1, with Council President Peter Brennan casting the sole no vote and complaining that by tabling the measure, the council was thwarting what he described as a “year and a half of work” on the issue.

Most prominently, the proposal would have included a 60-minute limit on vendors staying in one location before having to move a quarter of a mile; kept vendors at a distance of 100 feet from each other; and restricted food trucks from operating within 300 feet of a “brick and mortar” establishment.

It would also have required a background check, and brought more oversight to the application process, in the wake of the embarrassing July 2009 arrest of health department official Joseph Castagna for allegedly issuing scores of illegal vendor licences (Castagna has since retired.)

“As of today, we don’t know who’s who out there,” Brennan said, referencing Castagna’s illegally issued licenses. He added that because of the legal limbo, the city hasn’t collected any fees on the truck and cart vending licenses in over a year.

“We let this go astray for too long. We want to bring it back under control of the city, and this [ordinance] is how we have to do it,” Brennan said. “Should we make amendments to this? I believe we can. But we have children out there and we need to protect them first.”

However, the food truck vendors in attendance — representing food ranging from taco trucks to creperies to Indian food carts to a chef who changes his cart’s menu regularly — called the ordinance’s regulations unjust and misguided in intent, and questioned the “unfair burden” of proposed background checks.

“All we’re trying to do is make a living,” said Taste of India cart owner Morris Peters.

The Taco Truck CEO Jason Scott, who first aired concerns about the proposal when it was unveiled two weeks ago, again acknowledged that some areas of the proposal were necessary, in particular the regular health inspections, which he described as “long overdue.” But overall, he said, he has been “disappointed” with much of what has been proposed.

“How will [these regulations] be enforced?” asked Scott, referring to the vendor-to-vendor spacing and time limit issues. “What if a police officer sees two trucks parked 25 feet from each other and they both say they were there first? Will someone have a stopwatch to see how long they’ve been there? Will they use GPS to measure the distance?”

Natalia Caicedo of the Lucinda truck (at right) added that the 60-minute time limit was too short.

“It takes me 20 minutes to set up and 20 minutes to close up,” she said. “It’s not possible to work this way.”

She also took issue with the restrictions on trucks’ proximity to each other, pointing out that the vendors rely on creating a critical mass of food trucks, like at Harborside’s popular mini food-truck row.

“The way we operate is that we’re next to each other, this is how we create our business,” she said. “We operate in an area where there is no foot traffic, there’s nothing there, we work and we start from zero and create a lunch [area] and [our] customers are so happy.”

Food truck vendor James Saldana took issue with the city’s plan to wean the current number of licenses, which stands at 322, down to the current cap of 175. Because of the difficulties in figuring out which extra licenses were issued illegally and which weren’t, the proposed revisions to the law would allow all 322 licenses to be renewed at the start, in order to protect the city from potential lawsuits. But the changes would limit the number of license transfers to 175, in an effort to slowly reduce the number of licenses.

“We work 12 to 15 hours a day, we’re hard working people and bust our butts day and night. If the licenses are cut down to 175, the city should buy the remaining licenses out,” Saldana said. “We’re not buying them in secret; we bought them from a city official. It’s not our fault that they weren’t given out correctly.”

In addition to the truck operators, several residents spoke up to oppose the changes and support the vendors.

“I love the vendors because I am on a fixed income now and I actually have to watch every dime,” R.L. Williams said. “Every time I walk by hot dog truck I have to ask myself, can I afford a hot dog? I have a Comcast bill to pay, so I say, should I get a hot dog or cut Comcast? So, OK, I cut Comcast. We need cheap, affordable food in Jersey City.”

As members of the public continued to come to the podium to put their opposition to the proposal on the record, Mayor Healy’s chief of staff Rosemary McFadden interjected.

“If the entire council wants to table this for further reflection, the administration wouldn’t object,” she said. But Brennan said he wanted to let all the speakers talk first, and then after the speakers finished, Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop officially made the motion to table the ordinance.

Food truck vendors operating in Fulop’s ward have told JCI in the past that they see him as the driving force behind these changes; local food-business owners near the Exchange Place area have been vocal in their complaints that the trucks are taking business away from them. Last summer the councilman’s opposition helped derail a proposal to set the time limit at three hours; Fulop told JCI at the time that allowing the trucks to stay in one spot for that long would be “hurting the bricks-and-mortar establishments.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Brennan criticized Fulop for backing away from what was largely his law in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

But Fulop, while acknowledging he put a lot of time into it, said perhaps the council subcommittee that drafted the bill didn’t engage the public enough during the process.

“[The proposal] needs work still … it’s far from perfect,” Fulop said. “There were points made by residents here [tonight] that we didn’t consider [when drafting it.]”

Vendors have told JCI that they have generally been shut out of the process during the entire two-plus years revisions to the law have been considered. Ward F councilwoman Viola Richardson said Wednesday that, at the very least, that has to change as they go back to the drawing board.

“I’d like to applaud the committee who worked on this, but you can’t sit here and hear all of the concerns and not want to do something else. It has to be fine-tuned,” she said. “The food trucks are next to each other and they don’t care, they don’t have a problem with it, so why should we?”

Reached this morning, Scott of The Taco Truck says he has a May 31 meeting scheduled with Fulop to work on revisions to the legislation.

“It was a step in the right direction,” he says of the council’s decision to table the bill last night.

All photos: Steve Gold

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.