A committee that has been formed to address complaints and concerns about food trucks and the city ordinance that regulates peddlers, solicitors and transient merchants will convene for its first meeting at 10 a.m. Monday in the second-floor conference room of City Hall.
The El Dorado City Council discussed the matter during a regular meeting on Nov. 4 after receiving complaints from some downtown business owners about food trucks/carts setting up in the city's Central Business District.
The council heard from downtown merchants and food truck/mobile business operators during the meeting.
City officials revisited the issue during an El Dorado Water and Public Works Board meeting on Nov. 10.
Robert Edmonds, director of public works, broached the topic then, saying, "One other thing that has come up and it's about food trucks on the (downtown) square and I guess, around town in general."
Edmonds recommended that the city create a committee to review and clarify Ordinance 1783, which regulates how transient peddlers, vendors and merchants conduct business within city limits.
The ordinance was adopted in 2008 and defines and clarifies definitions of and sets limitations for such operations.
At the crux of the issue is a debate about whether the ordinance applies to food trucks, which have grown in popularity and have begun cropping up in El Dorado in recent years.
While Ordinance 1783 does not specifically address food trucks, it states that "every person, firm, or corporation who goes from one city or town to another, stopping only for a limited period of time in each for the purpose of marketing sales, goods, wares, services, entertainment, food, beverages or anything of value from a motor vehicle, tent, open-air stand, area or table, trailer, concession or other transient portable structure, vehicle or device, not otherwise established or classified as a permanent business."
The ordinance also sets time limits and fees of $300 for a one- to seven-day operation and $500 for a transient operation that is set up in the city for eight to 30 days.
Operators of transient businesses must present proof of sales tax, health and other applicable permits that are required by the state before a transient merchant permit is issued by the city.
"We either need to enforce it or get rid of it," Edmonds said in reference to Ordinance 1783.
City Clerk Heather McVay previously said that when questions about food trucks in the city began to arise in 2017, she began gathering applicable ordinances and policies regarding the operation of food trucks and mobile/itinerant street vendors from other cities around the state, including Arkadelphia, North Little Rock, Conway, Hot Springs, Benton, Cabot, Bentonville, Rogers and others.
At the time, McVay suggested that El Dorado city officials, including then-Mayor Frank Hash, consider creating an ordinance that pertained to food trucks.
Per Edmonds' recommendation, the city council agreed to form a committee to look into the matter.
Committee members include Greg Harrison, Tony Vartenian, Beth Brumley -- executive director of Main Street El Dorado --, local food truck operator Kelly Owens and city council members Andre Rucks and Mike Rice.
City officials have said that the City Code Enforcement Office and the El Dorado Fire Department should also be involved in the effort.
Harrison, a member of the Union County Quorum Court and a downtown business/property owner, appeared before the council on Nov. 4 to express his concerns about food trucks and itinerant vendors who set up downtown.
Vartenian, also a local business/property owner, broached the topic of transient merchants in El Dorado in August of 2019, telling council members then that the applicable city fees were not being assessed for some transient merchants and peddlers and that Ordinance 1783 was not being enforced in some instances.
Vartenian and Council Member Dianne Hammond also requested copies of peddler's licenses that had been issued by the city within the past year.
Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer said at the time that the matter was being addressed within the City Collector's office, which issues the transient merchant permits.
Per the city ordinance, exemptions for the permit include transient merchants that set up "in conjunction with nonprofit organizations or governmental functions" and operators who sell locally grown produce, grain and other farm products.
'They are a permanent business'
City Attorney Henry Kinslow weighed in on the matter during a regular city council meeting on Nov. 4, saying that, per his legal opinion, he felt that least one itinerant merchant -- Four Points Coffee Company -- was violating Ordinance 1783.
"It's a mobile business that he has. The state tax certificate says 'mobile' and I've been provided points that show he's going to other towns so he needs to pay the fee under that ordinance (1783)," Kinslow said.
Council Member Willie McGhee invited Harrison, who was in the audience, to step to the lectern after Harrison asked if the matter was going to be discussed during the meeting, prompting the response from Kinslow about the alleged ordinance violation.
Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer read the section of the ordinance that defines transient merchants and operations.
"Because the food trucks are being classified -- they are a permanent business. They're not just coming through town," the mayor said.
She also noted that Ordinance 1783 limits operations for transient merchants to "one occasion of not more than 30 days per year" within the El Dorado.
"And the food trucks are operating more than 30 days a year so if we're saying that particular -- that (Four Points) coffee cart and other food trucks that are going from place to place within the city or out of the city, then that means that we have to charge them $500 every 30 days," Smith-Creer said.
"But this says for one occasion. That would be like for people who come and set up in front of Walmart (Supercenter), that are just passing through," she continued. "But the food trucks are here ... If they're going to another place, then that makes them a peddler or transient in the other places that they're going to."
Kinslow explained that the ordinance does not apply to food trucks "that stay in a permanent place and has a deal with a landowner."
"I mean, that's just another way to have a building," Kinslow said.
Smith-Creer inquired about if the ordinance pertains to the coffee cart, which sets up in different locations within the city and operates for longer than 30 days.
Kinslow said such matters can be hashed out in 35th Judicial District Court if a complaint is filed.
Smith-Creer said Ordinance 1783 was adopted prior to the rise of food trucks in the city, adding that food trucks "operate differently" and citing the need to craft an ordinance that "specifically" addresses food trucks.
Harrison said he had spoken with former Mayor Mike Dumas about the matter. Dumas served as mayor when Ordinance 1783 was adopted. He also sits on the Quorum Court.
During a discussion about the matter on Sept. 18, 2008 -- the day the ordinance was passed --, Dumas said the measure was aimed at transient merchants who frequently set up in parking lots around the city to sell items, such as furniture, to "keep those folks from starting a business on the sidewalk."
Dumas also said at the time that other cities that were overrun with transient merchants had taken similar action.
A question arose then about a former hot dog vendor who operated a cart in downtown El Dorado and then-city Council Member Matt Thomas said the vendor had purchased a city business occupation license.
Harrison said on Nov. 4 that food trucks had become an issue in the city in 2008.
"Food trucks are a ... cyclical thing. Every so often, you'll have an initiation of many people setting up food trucks and there's nothing wrong with that at all," Harrison said.
While Harrison said he supports and encourages entrepreneurship, he takes issue with transient merchants who set up downtown and sell many of the same products as downtown merchants who run brick-and-mortar businesses, collect sales taxes and provide jobs.
Kinslow reiterated that city code enforcement officers can be called to investigate if a peddler is violating Ordinance 1783.
"And we did that earlier this week, and of course, he was told that they did have the correct permit at $32 a year, which was inaccurate," Harrison said.
Kinslow said that in such cases, city code enforcement officers can cite the operator and the matter can then be decided in district court.
Council Member Judy Ward agreed that the city needs an ordinance regulating food trucks, saying that the issue has evolved in El Dorado over the years.
She said that when discussions about the Ordinance 1783 were taking place in 2008, audience member Hash, who would go on to serve as mayor from 2011 until 2018, presented items he had purchased from a transient merchant and told council members that such operations were taking business "away from store owners that are paying taxes and living in El Dorado."
"So that is the reason that the first peddlers' ordinance was initiated, was to protect our own business owners that live in the community, who support the community," Ward said. "So, what we need here is to have a food truck ordinance and I think that would take care of this."
McGhee said the city has not had a chance to update the city ordinance to reflect the presence of food trucks in the city, noting that some restaurant owners turned to food trucks "to save their established businesses" during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
"We need time to catch up an ordinance with what's coming in because everything was going on so fast, we were just trying to keep revenue going and let people still have some type of source of business and provide a service because people were talking about they wanted to go to restaurants," McGhee said.
Harrison said that in response to food trucks that were setting up in front of downtown businesses in 2019, prior to the spread of COVID, and food truck festivals that have taken place downtown, several downtown merchants signed off on a petition that was submitted to the city last year.
Food truck operators
Owens -- who operates a BBQ food truck at the intersection of North West Avenue and Grove, the former site of a Hurry Back convenience store -- approached the council on Nov. 4, saying that he has obtained the proper permits to operate within the city, county and state.
He expressed concern that the matter at hand would affect his business.
Kinslow asked Owens if his truck is stationary and Owens said yes, adding later that he is sometimes asked to operate at special events.
Kinslow told Owens that Ordinance 1783 does not apply to his business.
Rucks said the ordinance should include provisions that address when a mobile business is called away for a catering event.
"So, please consider when they're writing the language, consider individuals that have an event that they might have to go to ... because we don't want to deter people within our city who's trying to create revenue, who's trying to create a service and provide products to our community," Rucks said.
"We don't want to deter them but at the same time, we want to do it the right way," he added.
The council also heard from Melissa Shipp, owner/operator of Barefoot Food Truck, which was also referenced by Harrison during the meeting.
Shipp said she does not aim to take business away from brick-and-mortar operations, noting that the Barefoot Food Truck draws customers from outside El Dorado and Union County.
Shipp says her mobile food business moves throughout the city and she fields requests from other local businesses to set up on their properties.
"That's why I'm mobile. It's a convenience for the city of El Dorado," she said, adding that the food truck is open only on the weekend.
Like Owens, Shipp said she has obtained the necessary permits and licenses to operate her business and only recently heard about Ordinance 1783.
Once she covers overhead costs, Shipps says she profits $200 - $300 a week on average.
"That's if I'm lucky, and you're telling me I have to pay $300 a week and peddler's fee even though I'm in the city of El Dorado? I'm just moving around?" she asked incredulously.
Kinslow explained that ordinance applies to transient merchants that move on to other cities.
Shipp said she was scheduled to set up in Camden the following night, telling council members that she receives such requests "from time to time."
She also said she pays for a separate permit and applicable fees when she works in Camden, but she is based in El Dorado.
Rucks noted that food trucks pay sales taxes that generate revenue that "trickles down to the community" and Shipp said her goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar business.
Shipp noted that she had been asked to set up downtown on Nov. 6, per the request of Southern Threads Boutique in the 200 block of East Main Street, but she would not if advised by city officials not to do so.
"No, you can go ahead and do Saturday," Kinslow said.
"Is she going to set up in street and take a parking spot?" Bobby Bilo, a downtown business owner, asked.
Bilo also contended that the Barefoot Food Truck was not permitted to operate in the city of El Dorado.
"I called the City Collector yesterday and she didn't have any permit and all of a sudden, she's got one?" he asked.
"We were told that and we will clarify that," Smith-Creer said.
Shipp reiterated that she has obtained the applicable permits to operate in the city, county and state.
Bilo complained that the food truck takes up an on-the-street parking space when it operates downtown and that the coffee cart sets up on sidewalks and runs power from a downtown business.
City officials said the practice is not legal and they would advise the business owner to use a generator.
They also encouraged Bilo to join the food truck committee.
Harrison noted that the petition he prepared in 2020 pointed to space that is available in the Murphy Arts District complex for an open-air market, including mobile businesses and farmers' markets.