Contraband: Officers are looking for unsafe food and dangerous items. SMDP Image

Hot animal fat drips onto the Pier’s wooden deck, while open fires burn and the midday sun bakes down on uncooked bacon-wrapped hot dogs sitting in cardboard boxes — this scene poses a myriad of health and fire risks, but it is also just an average Saturday.

Every weekend dozens of unpermitted vendors set up shop on and around the 114-year-old wooden Pier. They have been known to cause a series of problems including using unregulated combustible fuels, selling food that is not up to health code, dumping trash and liquid waste by the beach and blocking the fire lanes onto the Pier.

All of these issues have been discussed at length in City Council meetings, prompting Councilmembers to take action with a set of new ordinances and increased staffing efforts.

“Me and my colleagues are addressing public safety, environmental advocacy and human rights. This issue isn’t about illegal vending, it’s about our community values, putting our foot down when enough is enough and now is that time,” said Councilmember Lana Negrete in a Dec. 7 Council meeting.

It’s an all hands on deck effort to tackle this issue. On any given weekend day there are three code enforcement officers, two SMFD fire inspectors, six to ten SMPD officers, ten to fifteen Public Works employees and eight to twelve Allied Security guards working to collaboratively address the problems around unpermitted vendors.

Code Enforcement educates vendors on regulations and works to encourage compliance. SMFD inspects combustible fuel use and confiscates unpermitted fuel. SMPD is on hand to enforce ordinances around vending and intervene in situations of conflict. Public Works has the massive task of cleaning up after vendors, while contracted Allied Security guards are stationed at Pier entrances to prevent unpermitted vendors from entering.

Once or twice a month the team is joined by six to eight County Public Health Inspectors, who address health code violations.

The process is not perfect, the vendors’ strategies are constantly changing, and the work is at times very frustrating. But, there have been results.

“I think just that level of collaboration, both in terms of the physical presence on the weekends, but also during the week, all the times we’re talking in meetings to tackle this problem, has been one of the biggest positives,” said Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta, who has been working on this issue since 2019.

The issues around unlicensed Pier vendors stem from the 2018 adoption of S.B. 946, which decriminalized street vending across the state. This well intentioned bill was primarily enacted to reduce the risk of deportation if vendors incurred a misdemeanor citation through their vending activity.

An unintended result of S.B. 946 is that cities no longer have any enforcement tools to address negative consequences from street vending.

While many cities have been able to handle this problem by funneling vendors through a training and permitting process, Santa Monica has had more difficulty due to the nature of the Pier. It is not only a widely popular tourist attraction, but it was one of the few open attractions during the pandemic and began attracting hundreds of vendors on the weekends.

Furthermore, vendors are not incentivized to go through the City’s permitting process as there are only 13 vending spots available on the Pier, and, per Santa Monica’s vending ordinance, all other vendors must be stationed at least 100 feet away. Even though Code Enforcement is hard at work spreading the word about Santa Monica’s permitting process, most vendors aren’t complying.

“I’ll be candid that we haven’t seen the sort of the surge (in permit applications) that we would like, because I think, unfortunately the marketplace is at an unpermitted location, so even if you did go through the process and get a permit, you can’t be on the Pier,” said Gupta.

With the carrot of permitting not enough to create compliance, the City has created a stick. In this case, a series of new ordinances that explicitly prohibit some of the most damaging practices of vendors.

On Aug. 24, City Council voted to ban the unpermitted use of combustible fuels on and around the Pier, the dumping of commercial trash in public receptacles and the dumping of liquid waste in public areas.

“The biggest change is the ability to legally get involved in these issues and support both code and fire, which we weren’t able to really do before,” said SMPD Lt. Bobby Villegas. “I think it was a frustration on their part that they had a mission to do, but then PD was legally handcuffed to anything, and so the ordinance opened that.”

In all enforcement scenarios, staff are instructed to first educate the vendor about the problem, then offer an advisal and only move to a citation or an arrest as a last resort.

Even with the new option of enforcement tools, the City has not been able to get a handle on all of the problems associated with unpermitted vending.

“With our enforcement resources we have to prioritize, so I think that we’ve all agreed that the Pier itself, the immediate access points, and certainly the fire safety are the priorities that the collaborative enforcement effort is really focused on,” said Gupta.

On weekends, the rule that carts cannot be stationed in the pathway of Pier entrances is consistently enforced by Code Enforcement and other personnel, and carts are often relocated. This is a priority because in the event of an emergency on the Pier — be it fire, medical or otherwise — visitors must immediately be able to evacuate and emergency vehicles enter.

Similarly, the combustible fuel issue has been cracked down upon and fire and police officers routinely confiscate unpermitted fuels. This is a priority because of the vulnerable nature of the wooden Pier and the limited ability of its sprinkler system to extinguish a fire.

The prohibitions against trash and liquid dumping are, for the time being, a second priority and unfortunately there are environmental consequences.

Public Works is working around the clock to try and keep the Pier, Palisades Park and surrounding beach area trash free, but according to Chief Operating Officer Peter James, it can sometimes feel like they are fighting a losing battle.

“Our sense of frustration comes from the never ending cycle of cleaning something up to a very high standard of cleanliness only to watch it be disrespected each and every day and that definitely takes a toll on the morale of the staff that are assigned to do that job,” said James. “It’s like raking leaves in a windstorm.”

As the vending problem worsened, Public Works contracted an additional cleaning staff member to solely pick up trash in the 1550 Lot next to the Pier where most of the carts do their staging. According to James, this person fills 12 to 16 giant trash bags a day on the weekends.

Public Works staff tackle the trash dumping problem on all fronts. They wash animal fat grease stains off the bike path, extract rotting fruit that was dumped into the bushes in Palisades Park, and will even remove corn kernels from the sand by hand as their mechanical cleaning tool can’t separate parts this small.

“Our staff care very much down to that level of the kernel of the corn and we would support any effort to make the situation better for the community and the planet,” said James. “Without enforcement, we are just not likely to resolve these issues in any simple way, so I would support more enforcement of ordinances as a way to curtail some of the damage that’s being done to our public spaces.”