Reed vs. the vendors

While the economy still struggles to pick up steam, and nary a politician speaks without uttering the word “jobs,” Atlanta has been keeping some small businesses closed.

Earlier this month, a Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled — for the third time since December — that Mayor Kasim Reed was wrongly keeping street vendors from working. Reed’s actions appear so stubborn, even vindictive, that the vendors’ attorney, Robert Frommer, compares him to “a spoiled child who picks up his ball and goes home because the game didn’t turn out his way.”

How did this game get started? In 2009, before Reed took office, the city granted an exclusive contract for vending on public property to Chicago-based General Growth Properties. Vendors who had paid $250 a year for permits were forced to rent one of GGP’s green downtown kiosks for between $6,000 and $20,000 a year, or close their businesses.

The vendors sued. In December, Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua ruled the city had no legal authority to enter such a contract. She voided the contract and the 2008 law authorizing it.

The city interpreted her order to mean it had no vending law anymore, because the 2008 law repealed the prior law.

Vendors were shooed away from the areas near Five Points and Turner Field. In a crackdown before the Final Four in April, Frommer says, police jailed a hot dog salesman.

At that point, one might have given Reed the benefit of the doubt as trying to comply with the court order. But in July, LaGrua clarified her ruling: Only the 2008 law and the contract were void, not the law that predated them.

Still, the Reed administration kept street vendors off the streets.

Even then, if one were charitable toward the mayor, one might have said LaGrua's clarification was less than crystal clear. She made no references to the status quo ante. She didn't write, "The old law's still good, y'all."

Now she has. On Oct. 8, she issued a writ of mandamus ordering Reed to comply with the pre-2008 law, saying it “was not repealed and remains in effect.”

Yet, the city remains noncompliant. Reed is out of excuses.

The mayor’s office insists a new vending law will be proposed by year’s end. That would be a year after the 2008 law was voided: a year too late for small businesses that lost an entire season of selling outside Turner Field, barred from operating under the law on the books while a new one was drafted.

“There are real consequences to not letting these people get back to work,” Frommer says. “What the mayor has done is take a sledgehammer to swat a fly. And he’s hurt a lot of innocent people in the process.”

Street vendors may not be the most sympathetic bunch in Atlanta. Passersby find the way some of them hawk their wares messy and aggressive. Undoubtedly, some civic-minded folks have told Reed Atlanta is better off without them.

And yet, as Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias said of the rule of law in a recent speech:

“When judges are just doing what everyone kind of likes, you don’t really need judges who care about the rule of law. The rule of law matters when judges are going to do something that people say, I hate that result, but if you look at what the law says, I understand that that’s the law that we’ve enacted in this country, and that’s the result that needs to come out of that process.”

From his mouth to Reed’s ear.

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