CITY HALL — If you’re looking for a little late-night nosh after an evening of carousing at the popular bars on Main Street, you’re going to have to stagger a bit farther than usual.
The Santa Monica Police Department has declared the presence of food trucks on Main Street between Ocean Park Boulevard and Marine Street a hazard that attracts intoxicated people and gums up the streets, sidewalks and other public spaces.
Deputy Police Chief Al Venegas and Cap. Carol Larson called on council members to ban food trucks on the four blocks bounded by those two streets between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., Saturday and Sunday, to cut down on drunken loitering.
“Traditionally, drinking establishments have their last call at 1:30, and by 2 a.m. they are closed,” Venegas said. “At this time, they patronize the food trucks, which keeps them there that much longer.”
What sounds like an innocent attempt to soak up a night of revelry actually costs Santa Monica a hefty bar tab.
The crowds and their propensity to jaywalk and engage in other risky activity has forced the police department to assign four officers and a sergeant to the area at a price tag of $67,000 in unfunded overtime.
Officers are concerned about more than just people having a bit too much fun.
Activity around bars also leads to other public safety issues of varying degrees of severity, from noise complaints to aggravated assault.
To drive the point home, Larson and Venegas showed 1 minute and 52 seconds of footage shot on Main Street over the course of five days.
It showed people crowding sidewalks around food trucks, walking across the middle of dark streets without a crosswalk and staggering to waiting taxi cabs which parked themselves in the middle of active lanes of traffic to pick up the intoxicated bar patrons.
“We’re not saying that the food trucks are causing the problem, but it’s the food trucks taking advantage of the extra people out there in states of inebriation and keeping them there long after the bars have closed; that’s our concern,” Venegas said.
Matt Geller, spokesman for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, urged council members to acknowledge the public safety aspect of food trucks, but also the economic benefits.
“We do realize that Main Street has become an issue, but it’s also important to note that the good thing over the last six to seven months is a spike in the population there,” Geller said.
The food trucks are simply filling a demand that another restaurant or food establishment will meet once they’re gone, he said.
Typically, Santa Monica hasn’t had a lot of luck restricting food trucks.
Local municipalities do not govern their own streets, a duty left to state government to ensure that road rules are consistent across city and county lines.
Therefore, it’s difficult for city governments like Santa Monica’s to put boundaries on what food trucks can and cannot do beyond enforcing parking restrictions and normal road rules.
The proposed ban was narrow enough, in both the times and geographic space it limited trucks to, not to tread on too many toes, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
Given that and the police department’s assurances that the restrictions would relieve a public safety hazard, council members could feel assured that the ban would pass legal muster.
There was something of a time crunch, Moutrie said.
“We’re hoping if you support this law, that you’ll pass it before the holiday break,” she said. “It’s narrow as to time, narrow as to location and we think it will greatly improve the safety on Main Street.”
That didn’t stop the council from engaging in a lively debate on the topic, focusing largely on the relative benefits of getting food into drinkers to sober them up versus sending them on their way drunk and hungry.
“Is it your professional opinion that there’s a greater safety problem by food trucks being there than people leaving bars inebriated on an empty stomach?” City Councilmember Kevin McKeown asked Venegas.
Venegas acknowledged that food can help alleviate some of the symptoms of over-drinking, but that the problem he was trying to solve was congestion on the streets.
“We’re not trying to do away with food trucks, but they can move to a different location,” Venegas said.
The council approved the suggested ordinance with a vote of 5-1, with Councilmember Terry O’Day against. O’Day wasn’t convinced that a ban was the only way to solve the public safety issue and wanted to see other options.
If passed on a second reading at the Nov. 22 meeting, the new law will take effect 30 days later, just in time for the holiday season.