Anger and Confusion at City of Cleveland's Communication About and Enforcement of Street Vendor Licenses

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A street vendor getting cited by city inspectors for selling goods without a permit doesn’t sound very newsworthy. But there's been a noteworthy outcry from countless individuals, small business owners and organizers of virtually every market and festival in Cleveland who have said in recent days that they had no knowledge of needing such permits from the city of Cleveland.

What initially seemed like an isolated case has shed light on the City’s negligence in making folks aware of these Street Vendor’s Licenses — allegedly not mentioning them specifically at permit meetings with the organizers or directly on their website, prior to a post on Thursday, July 27.

The confusion began at Wade Oval Wednesday on July 19. A city spokesman told Scene that two vendors had been given warnings on that day for failing to have permits; they were instructed to leave immediately. Organizers from University Circle Inc. later postponed two market events scheduled for July 26 and August 23.

Although representatives of Wade Oval Wednesday didn’t want to discuss the incident on the record, plenty of other local event organizers were happy to speak up. For example, Brendan Trewella, event coordinator of Night Market Cleveland says, “Firstly, we were not aware, nor were we given the permit when we met with the City Steering Committee in March, April or May, for various events. We were told that ‘merchandise vendor permits’ would be needed, however, State Transient Vendor Permits have always been sufficient. In past years, we have sought clarification on that issue several times to ensure our vendors were in compliance. A specific permit or city ordinance was never identified at that official meeting. Nowhere is it indicated in the official records of these meetings that an ID Badge was required.”

Other event organizers and merchants have reported receiving contradictory information from various city representatives, and it has all led to a very chaotic week. Following the citations on July 19, news quickly spread across the region’s tight-knit makers community through social media groups. After an open discussion, it became clear to both organizers and merchants that everyone was unaware of these Licenses and under the impression that Ohio’s Transient Vendor’s License was all that was required. That State’s license is a one-time $25 fee and never expires. The City’s Street Vendor’s License and ID Badge is $60 per year. After speaking to organizers of events in nearby cities, such as Akron, Toledo and Pittsburgh, they all confirm that this kind of permit is not an issue outside of Cleveland. The implication being that vendors may choose to avoid the hassle and skip over events within the city limits, hurting Cleveland markets and pushing events outside of city limits.

"This isn't entirely about the permit fee itself, although it will have broader impact than I think the City realizes,” says Shannon Okey, longtime organizer of the Cleveland Bazaar. “It's about discouraging small businesses from doing business in Cleveland. We already have vendors dropping out of shows. No other city in the state is doing this, the statewide Transient Vendor License is enough. It creates a hostile environment for startup and micro businesses. We should be encouraging these entrepreneurs, not driving them out of the city to events elsewhere."

Organizers and vendors have voiced concern for several reasons, including: lack of transparency and communication, seemingly selective enforcement, difficulty in obtaining these Licenses and Identification Badges and the fact that this applies to individuals, not businesses. According to the ordinance (last updated in 2014), even volunteers selling goods or services alone are required to pay for the $60 annual license or face a potential minor misdemeanor and $150 fine per day.

“All of this is an obvious hassle and financial burden for small businesses and their employees, possibly ruinous for event organizers, and a major deterrent for anyone coming from outside the city to do business here,” says April Bleakney, local printmaker and owner of Ape Made. “All of whom already pay out in the form of permits, licenses, booth fees and sales tax. Not to mention the blanket negative effects on our city's arts, culture and small business scenes coupled with the assumed effect of pushing Cleveland talent outside the city borders to do business more easily.”

After several days of calls and emails, the city finally offered some clarification by posting an information page on its website on Thursday, July 27. However, information in the website post directly contradicts the ordinance itself. For example, the post states that only one person in any group is required to have a Street Vendor’s License and ID Badge.

In an FAQ format the City’s information page states, “Does everyone in my business selling goods at an event need an ID Badge? No. But at least one person in the vending group must have a Street Vendor’s License and Identification Badge. Each License and Identification Badge has the name of the person to whom it belongs. Additionally, the Identification Badge will contain the photo of the license. That person must be on site in the working group for the duration of the event. Everyone in the group does NOT need to have a License and Identification Badge.”

However, the ordinance itself applies to individuals, not businesses. Part A of 675.02 clearly says, “No person shall engage in vending anywhere in the City without a vendor’s license issued under Section 675.03. The issuance of a vendor’s license to a person shall not be deemed to authorize agents or employees of the person to vend without a license.”

Although the ordinance and application both instruct applicants to submit their forms and documents in-person or by mail, the city announced in their website post that applicants can now apply by email. Why is this all so important? Because the City is changing policy without changing legislation with no assurance for individuals, small business or event organizers that this policy will continue or for how long. According to both the ordinance and the website, the License and Badge both begin August 1 and expire on July 31 of the following year, apparently no matter when you apply.

"This is not new," a city spokesman told Cleveland.com. "This has been on the books for years. It's for the public's benefit. The reason for us to do this is we want to know what's being sold, if it's a safe product and, if there's a problem, we can track who's selling it."

As for Wade Oval Wednesdays, University Circle Inc. has postponed its two market nights originally scheduled on July 26 and August 23 until this issue is fully resolved with the City. “We were disappointed to postpone our market night at Wade Oval Wednesday and we hope to work with the city to find an equitable solution for our vendors and merchants,” says David Robinson, manager of business services for University Circle Inc.

There is some good news out of all of this. Night Market Cleveland has spoken to the city to ensure its vendors can carry on with business as usual at its July 28 event due to the short notice (the City’s information page claims application processing takes up to five business days).

“We have been in touch with the appropriate people to discuss options on how to proceed and after much discussion, it was agreed that they (Licensing and Permitting) would not enforce the ordinance at the July 28 Night Market Cleveland because there simply was not enough time to ensure that vendors would not be ticketed. We were fortunate to be able to address this issue immediately upon learning of the enforcement, and are relieved that we did not have to cancel the event this Friday…Prior to being offered a reprieve, we had a dozen vendors cancel their appearance at the event due to the additional and unexpected requirements. We hope that we will be able to win them back with assurances that they will not be fined.”

Moving forward, city inspectors promise they’ll be looking for ID Badges and checking for Licenses at events within city limits. It remains to be seen how big of an impact this will have on events in the city.


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