Fulton Judge Rules against Atlanta in Street Vendor Dispute

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(APN) ATLANTA — Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua has ruled in favor of street vendors in Atlanta who were negatively impacted by the City of Atlanta when the City entered into a contract with a private firm, U.K. – LaSalle, LLC, to manage the City’s street vendors.

The case was Larry Miller and Stanley Hambrick v. City of Atlanta.  Miller and Hambrick are two long-time street vendors at outside of Atlanta’s Turner Field, who were about to be displaced by the City’s 2008 ordinance and subsequent contract with LaSalle, which ultimately required Miller and Hambrick to seek to rent space from LaSalle in order to continue vending.

LaSalle is an entity owned by a company called General Growth Properties (GGP).

“In 2009, Atlanta handed over all vending on public property to GGP—the first time any American city has set up such a centralized scheme for vending.  As the monopolist has moved into areas of the city, Atlanta officials have revoked the existing vendors’ permits and forced them to leave.  The first phase of the program eliminated approximately 16 vibrant vending businesses along with dozens of self-supporting private sector jobs,” the Institute for Justice (IJ)–who provided legal representation for Miller and Hambrick–said on its website.

The City of Atlanta began getting rid of street vendors shortly after the legislation was enacted, forcing vendors to seek to rent private kiosks from LaSalle.  Renting a kiosk could cost up to 20,000 dollars per year, and this has led to the proliferation of empty kiosks throughout Atlanta where street vendors once were.

IJ filed the case on behalf of Miller and Hambrick in 2011 seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

“If they put me inside a kiosk, it would be like putting me in a coffin,” Miller said at the time in a video prepared by IJ and posted on Youtube.

On December 12, 2012, David Bennett, Senior Policy Advisor for Mayor Kasim Reed, sent letters to Miller and Hambrick letting them know that their vending permits had expired, that no extension was approved, that they would not be renewed, and that they would no longer be able to vend at their current locations.  Come January 2013, LaSalle was to have taken over control of all street vending outside Turner Field in addition to the other areas downtown it had already taken over.

However, in the ruling dated December 21, 2012, granting summary judgment to Plaintiffs Miller and Hambrick in the case, LaGrua wrote, “The City’s Charter… does not contain language expressly granting the City the power to create an exclusive franchise.  Therefore, the City does not have the authority to do so.”

“While the City concedes that the Charter does not authorize the creation of an exclusive franchise, it asserts that the Vending Documents have not created such an exclusive franchise,” LaGrua wrote.

However, LaGrua goes on to note that the contract the City entered into with LaSalle, grants LaSalle, “the exclusive right to occupy and use all public property vending sites which meet the requirements of the Atlanta City Code including without limitation those vending sites currently occupied by public property vendors already licensed by the city…”

LaGrua states that while LaSalle in practice may have acted solely as a manager of numerous vendors, that because the contract itself allows LaSalle to be the only vendor, the contract violates the City’s Charter.

LaGrua notes that cities in the State of Georgia only have such powers that are specifically granted to them by their charter.

“The fact that LaSalle has chosen to act as a management company does not negate the fact that it has the right to use and occupy all the approved vending sites in the City,” under the contract, LaGrua wrote.

LaGrua ruled that the Vending Documents–including a City ordinance, a City resolution, and the contract with LaSalle–are each void and without effect.  LaGrua also enjoined the City from preventing the Plaintiffs from continuing to operate as street vendors in the City of Atlanta.

“This is a victory not just for vendors in Atlanta, but all of Georgia’s entrepreneurs,” Robert Frommer, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview.  

“Georgia’s Constitution provides for real limits on government power. The Court thankfully recognized that in striking down this unconstitutional vending scheme,” Frommer said.

“Thanks to today’s ruling, a weight has been lifted off of my chest. Now I can focus on selling my t-shirts, jerseys and boiled peanuts instead of worrying that my business will be shuttered forever,” Miller, whose small business has operated outside of Turner Field for over twenty years, said in a statement.

“For decades, I have worked hard to build a business that I hope to turn over to my youngest son someday.  Atlanta’s vending monopoly threatened to destroy my family’s business, but today’s victory has given my dreams a new lease on life,” Hambrick, who, like Miller, employs half a dozen people to help him with his memorabilia stand outside of Turner Field, said.

“The court got it exactly right: Street vending is a classic way for entrepreneurial Americans to climb the economic ladder, but Atlanta’s law knocked the bottom rungs off that ladder by making it virtually impossible for vendors to operate,” IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall said.

The Institute for Justice (IJ) is the nation’s only Libertarian public interest law firm.  Among supporting street vendors as part of its Libertarian economic free market philosophy that promotes competition, the IJ has recently defended such things as unlimited independent spending by Political Action Committees in US elections, and so-called “school choice.”  

IJ is in small part funded by the controversial billionaire Koch brothers, principal owners of Georgia Pacific, who, among other things, helped launch the Tea Party in the US.

The 2008 ordinance changing the City’s vending rules to allow for a company like LaSalle to manage its street vendors was introduced by then-Councilman Ceasar Mitchell (Post 1-at-large) and Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4).

Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2), whose district includes part of downtown Atlanta, aggressively pushed for the measure.

All Councilmembers at the time voted for the ordinance, except for progressive champion Natalyn Archibong (District 5), who has now been vindicated by the Court’s ruling; and Joyce Sheperd (District 12), who was excused from voting.

The 2008 ordinance allowing the City to enter into a contract with LaSalle was adopted by a vote of nine to five.

Carla Smith (District 1), Hall, Ivory Young (District 3), Winslow, former Councilwoman Anne Fauver (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), former Councilwoman Clair Muller (District 8), Mitchell, and former Councilwoman Mary Norwood (Post 2-at-large) supported the resolution.

Archibong, Felicia Moore (District 9), CT Martin (District 10), former Councilman Jim Maddox (District 11), and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) opposed the resolution.  Sheperd was excused.

As previously reported, LaGrua used to serve in the Inspector General’s office for the Secretary of State of Georgia.  Elections integrity advocates were not a big fan of LaGrua, whom they believed did not adequately investigate issues involving electronic voting machines and questionable election results.  LaGrua was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Fulton County Superior Court in 2010 by former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

(END/2013)

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