By Greta Cobar
A new ordinance regulating vending on the West side of Ocean Front Walk (OFW) is set to take effect in the next few weeks. It was signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on December 16 and will take force after a 30 day posting on OFW.
It is intended to replace the resale of merchandise now taking place with performers and artists selling “inherently communicative” objects of “nominal value or utility.” The ordinance was unanimously approved by the Los Angeles City Council on Dec. 13.
Besides eliminating the lottery system of allocating spaces and getting rid of all resale merchandise such as clothes, accessories and toys, the ordinance also prohibits the sale of all types of jewelry, pottery, incense, oils and crystals. Doing henna tattoos, massaging and “the completion or other partial creation of visual art” are also going to be prohibited as soon as the ordinance takes effect. Items that will be allowed to be sold include paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, books, bumper stickers, buttons, audio and video recordings. There will be two spots designated for food distribution, and all spaces will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The first version of the current ordinance was drafted by City Attorney Carmen Trutanich on July 12 and as a result tens of Venice public meetings took place during the summer months to voice concern and give input to the downtown lawyers holding power over the ordinance. Venetians supported allowing handmade jewelry to be sold on OFW, asked that the First Amendment be mentioned, opposed artists being called “vendors” and the free speech zone divided into “designated” spaces. Sadly, the approved version did not incorporate any of the suggestions put forward by our outspoken citizens. Furthermore, there was strong community consensus against the proposed punishment for noncompliance. Disregarding community input, the final ordinance still threatens all repeat offenders with misdemeanor charges that carry $1000 fines and six months in jail.
This is the sixth revision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code 42.15, first introduced in 2004. The last revision, of 2008, established the lottery system of allocating the 205 designated spaces on OFW. It was deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson in October 2010 on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
For the past 14 months there have been no regulations imposed on the vending taking place on OFW. As a result long-term Venice artists were driven away by out-of-town merchants looking for a place to re-sell merchandise bought cheaply downtown. Fights over spaces, people camping out all night to reserve spots and then sell them in the morning, and vendors claiming ownership of spots have been the norm on OFW for the past year.
Although five other versions of this ordinance have been dumped on Venice in the last eight years, every one of them was poorly enforced and for a short period of time. Those of us who have witnessed the shortcomings of the previous versions do not have high hopes for this one either. Most seasoned Venetians expect enforcement to fade by summertime.
At the Dec. 15 Friends of the Boardwalk meeting Lieutenant Paola Kreefft stated that the LAPD does not have a plan to enforce the new ordinance going into effect at the end of January. According to Norman Kulla, who was also present at the mentioned meeting, signs announcing the changes have to be posted along OFW 30 days before the ordinance can be enforced. Kreefft plans to educate and warn the vendors of the changes before they take effect, but as of December 15 there was no plan to assign extra police officers to the tasks of education or enforcement.
Venice resident Stephen Fiske has a vision of appointing a team of ambassadors as informational advisors who would mediate minimal conflicts and aid with space management. “I see the boardwalk as a human stage of expression that needs management,” he said. His plan is to set up a team of individuals who are trained to be helpers and to ensure a positive experience for artists, tourists and residents with the ultimate goal of “getting rid of the danger in Venice,” he said. Although he currently has the support of the Boardwalk Merchants’ Association, the LAPD, numerous artists and performers as well as property owners, he is still in the process of finding sponsors to finance his program. His immediate plans are to put together a proposal with three budgets, from what is minimally needed to what would be adequate and finally to what would be ideal. Although all funds would be matched by city grants, the best possible option for the time being would be to raise enough money for a pilot program that would cover part of the boardwalk in order to test its effectiveness.
Stan Mohammed, who was also present at the Dec. 15 meeting, has run a successful anti-gang program in Venice since 2008 and can now provide, contingent on funding, the personnel to function as OFW ambassadors. According to him, the employees would be “trained Venice folks” serving as advisers and mediators. However, it all comes down to funding, as his anti-gang program was annihilated after only three months, when the funds ran out.
Although Fiske and Mohammed have a more strategic plan than the LAPD currently does, chances are that the higher-ups will continue to invest in their own police force. Community involvement and sovereignty have once again proven to be last on the higher-ups’ list, as the ordinance itself was dumped on Venice by downtown lawyers unfamiliar with the issues surrounding OFW. Venice was once again ignored and marginalized as an unwanted stepchild deemed too stupid to be able to take care of its own business. A new ordinance is needed, but not another failure in a series. If Venetians were allowed to manage their own business as opposed to taking orders from downtown, a lot less time and resources could be spent to produce an ordinance that suits our community and that could actually solve the issues on OFW.