More than $3 million has been set aside for code enforcement, policing and other oversight to combat illegal street vending on the historic structure

The City of Santa Monica has proven it’s willing to invest big bucks toward keeping its premiere tourist destination — the Pier — attractive for visitors and locals alike.

To that end, the City is prepared to pour about $3 million over the next year-and-a-half into a multi-agency collaboration focusing on law enforcement, code enforcement, health and safety, and fire prevention at the iconic destination.

On Tuesday, City Council approved a plan that would bulk up enforcement at the Pier more or less in line with a program that began eight weeks ago at the beginning of 2022: the formation of a Pier Task Force. Currently, the Task Force includes one police sergeant and four officers; one code enforcement supervisor and two officers; two fire inspectors; four public works staff members; and private security officers, who all work at the Pier on Fridays through Sundays enforcing vendor laws, cleaning up trash and maintaining order.

The increased enforcement came at the request of Council following health and safety complaints throughout 2021, according to a report delivered by Council & Legislative Affairs Liaison Stephanie Venegas.

According to Venegas, the timeline begins with then-Governor Jerry Brown signing SB 946 into law in September 2018. The California bill decriminalized sidewalk vending and prompted Santa Monica’s vending ordinance establishing a permitting program, which was approved in April 2019.

Following COVID-19 shut-downs throughout 2020, traffic began to pick up at the Pier in 2021, and with it, a wave of food vendors appeared on the Pier, Venegas described.

That was when City Council approved the ordinance that banned the use of combustible fuel and the dumping of solid and liquid waste in municipal trash cans or into the ocean or storm drains. Following further complaints, the Task Force was established as what Deputy City Attorney Anuj Gupta called “an experiment.”

That experiment found favor among all of Santa Monica’s city council members, including Phil Brock.

“There were times in 2021, I would go down, I’d see a fight. I’d see different things going on. I would see no police department personnel on the Pier,” Brock said. “And to see the difference is just outstanding. And that Task Force is not only [on] the Pier, it’s also the boardwalk, it’s also the parking lot.

“It’s not only about vendors, it has been about safety for the thousands and thousands of visitors that come to the Santa Monica Pier daily, weekly, monthly from around the world,” Brock continued. “And I see just the difference. I feel the difference at the top of the Pier, down the Pier.”

Brock said he would support the full Task Force operations through the summer months, but in the end council members requested a slightly modified version that would save the City close to three-quarters of a million dollars for fiscal year 2022-23.

The longer-term Task Force adjustments will include going from two fire inspectors down to one, no longer assigning a code enforcement supervisor to the Task Force, and moving the public works staff to “on-call” rather than “dedicated support.” No changes in police staffing were made.

Although many local business owners and stakeholders appeared during the lengthy public comment period to praise the Task Force and thank the City for its efforts on the Pier, there were also many comments from vendor advocates and attorneys who challenged the City’s enforcement tactics, alleging racial profiling on the part of enforcement officers and police.

Several representatives from the progressive advocacy group the National Lawyers Guild spoke at the meeting representing Pier vendors, both permitted and unpermitted.

These lawyers and law students described numerous instances of alleged discrimination and unnecessary use of force. One told a story about an officer who did not speak Spanish putting his hands on the cart of a street vendor and eventually handcuffing her. Another complained of excessive penalties and fees.

“Those who are in favor of this Task Force continue to say they’re in favor of permitted street vending, but they continue to harass vendors,” National Lawyers Guild member Sarah Handloser said, later adding, “I find it ironic that this Task Force presentation overused the vague term ‘success,’ but fails to define it as anything other than running as many low income people of color working as vendors off of the Pier as possible.”

Later in the meeting, Council Member Lana Negrete expressed skepticism about some of the complaints.

“I do want to attest to the fact that our Task Force in particular, and actually our police department, is more diverse in the community it represents,” Negrete said. “So, the idea that there were racial slurs or that our officers don’t speak Spanish? Most of them are bilingual on that Task Force and the only racial slurs that I actually watched on video were thrown at our police officer.”

Venegas said that since 2019, approximately 400 vendors have secured permits to operate in Santa Monica, with about 125 active permits as of the latest tally. However, Gupta acknowledged the process of achieving a permit was “still too difficult and still too cost prohibitive.”

“Many of the public health regulations, I think it’s fair to say, are archaic and not tailored to the actual realities of sidewalk vending,” Gupta said. “They haven’t adapted to the nature of sidewalk vending as a means of, kind of, economic activity.”

Council Members also presented ideas for enhancing permitted vendor activity including a “night market” style event held on the Pier parking lot, which has been closed since March 2020 but is set to reopen soon.

“We have gone over the last two years of COVID without having cars parked in the Pier parking lot, and the world has not collapsed. Nobody died,” Council Member Gleam Davis said. “And so, I’m wondering … is there a way to create vending opportunities in the Pier parking lot and over the long term, and maybe use it to house vendors instead of cars, which to me would be a much more pleasant experience?”

City staff said that the Pier parking lot is operated through a conditional use permit issued by the California Coastal Commission and any substantial change to its use would need to be approved by the statewide governing body; however, staff said the space was “flexible,” and could continue to be a multi-use space, as it has been utilized during the pandemic.

emily@smdp.com