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Getting Fluffed and Folded by the City
By Frank Gruber
I received a shock last week when I read in The Lookout that the City of Santa Monica was suing laundries for violating a law aimed at gender discrimination in the pricing of services like dry cleaning and hair cutting. ("City Takes Cleaners to Court," may 13, 2008) I was surprised to learn that one of the defendants is the cleaners I use -- Quality Express, located at the corner of Lincoln and Pico.
I've been taking my dry cleaning and dress shirts to Quality Express for years. The proprietors, Won and Jenny Kuk, an exceedingly polite and careful immigrant couple, hardly seem like the sort to flout a law against anything.
Mr. Kuk was quoted in the Lookout's article. He came across as bewildered -- so far as he knew, he had complied with the law's requirements to post a warning about gender discrimination and the prices of their fifteen most commonly requested services, and to have available a complete price list to give to customers if they asked.
One thing to keep in mind is that the City Attorney's Consumer Protection Unit, which brought the lawsuit against nine dry cleaners and laundries, is not suing because of any allegations of gender discrimination. There have been no complaints. The suit is about enforcing rules about signage and price lists. The Consumer Protection Unit hasn't made an investigation, for instance, to show that the price charged for cleaning a blouse is unfairly more than that charged for a shirt.
The signage and price list requirement is a little silly -- the kind of feel-good meaningless gestures that politicians like to pass to show how much the care about the people but which end up giving activist government a bad name. It's like saying -- in a different Santa Monica context -- that so long as a gas station posts signs listing the prices of three grades of gasoline it must mean that the station is not leaking chemicals into the water supply.
You have to wonder in the first place why the City Attorney has put any resources into enforcing the signage and price list requirements, but the more I learned about the whole case the worse it looked.
I stopped by Quality Express on Friday to drop off some clothes and I spoke to Mr. Kuk. He was still bewildered. He has signs posted -- see the photo below -- and he has a handout of prices available to give to customers, a list that he says he's had for at least four or five years.
Based on what Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, the head of the Consumer Protection Unit, told the Lookout, Mr. Kuk's problem seems to have arisen from the price list. The handout (I'm looking at one as I write this) is entitled, "Price List Standard Services" and lists about thirty dry cleaning and laundry prices. (The prices seem, by the way, to be related to degree of difficulty, not gender -- the price to launder a blouse, for instance, is more than that for a shirt, but less than that for a tuxedo shirt.)
But apparently a "standard price list" must not satisfy the law, at least as Mr. Radinsky sees it. He told The Lookout that the price list had to be "complete." Leaving aside the almost metaphysical issue raised by the owner of another cleaners quoted in The Lookout article as to whether there could be a "complete" list of dry cleaning prices (which probably has something to do with the infinite number of beads that can dance on a wedding dress), the problem appears to be that no one from the City had explained to Mr. Kuk that his handout didn't satisfy the law because it wasn't "complete."
You have to ask -- is this what the City of Santa Monica is suing Quality Express for? Seeking an injunction and up to $2,500 in fines? Because the Kuks innocently proffer the wrong price list to customers who may ask for one? (Question: when was the last time you asked for a complete price list at a cleaners?)
And all in the context that the City has not received any complaints about price discrimination?
What's more, Mr. Kuk told me that when after having been served the complaint he called the Consumer Protection Unit to find out what he needed to do to comply, the representative told him to get a lawyer. Mr. Kuk doesn't want to spend his hard earned money on a lawyer. He merely wants the City to tell him what he needs to do to comply with the law.
I called Mr. Radinsky to find out what was going on. Surely, I thought, the City Attorney's Office must have, before filing these expensive lawsuits, done outreach to educate the city's dry cleaners -- who after all, provide some of the "neighborhood-serving" retail that the City's planning department is always trying to encourage -- on what the law's requirements are.
Mr. Radinsky was out of town, but I spoke to Paula Rockenstein in his office. What I learned I found hard to believe. Although prior to filing the lawsuit, Mr. Radinsky's department had sent several notices to the dry cleaners, a copy of which Ms. Rockenstein provided me, these notices did not explain that the price list handout had to be more extensive than the list of the fifteen most-requested services that had to be posted.
What was even more disturbing was that although on three occasions -- three! -- Mr. Radinsky had sent -- in Ms. Rockenstein's words -- "undercover" inspectors to the cleaners to check on compliance with the law, not once had Mr. Radinsky bothered to send anyone to the cleaners to educate them on what the law required -- even after his first covert operation had found out there was a problem.
It's as if Mr. Radinsky was looking for a "gotcha" moment. I have to ask: was Mr. Radinsky more interested in obtaining compliance with the law or in filing a lawsuit against hard-working small businesspeople so that he could issue a press release and justify his unit's existence before next week's budget hearings at City Council?
This reminds me of what happened in 2004 when the hedge issue blew up, and it turned out the City's code enforcement people had sent notices to owners of illegally tall hedges threatening them with $25,000 per day fines. It turned out that this number was ten times the maximum that could be charged for a hedge violation (and of course in real life the City had never fined anyone for an overly tall hedge).
At the time there was much wringing of hands about this at City Council, and promises that this kind of bullying would never happen again.
Another aspect of the case that bothers me has to do with due process. According to the complaint filed against the cleaners, although originally the Consumer Protection Unit sent letters to all 48 dry cleaners (and 91 hair salons or barbers) in the city advising them of the law's requirements, the unit randomly chose 29 to investigate further.
Mr. Radinsky chose enforcement targets randomly? Is that fair?
According to Ms. Rockenstein, there are six employees in the Consumer Protection Unit, including two full-time attorneys and one part-time. That seems like enough lawyers so that they don't have to pick potential defendants out of a hat.
Most of the time, the City Attorney's Office gets noticed for defending the City's interests against big bad guys, like polluting oil companies and the Federal Aviation Administration. While I'm sure the Consumer Protection Unit has protected harassed tenants from time to time, it's unfortunate that in this case against the cleaners it's the City that is big and bad.
I suggest that in the future before City Manager Lamont Ewell and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie allow Mr. Radinsky to file a lawsuit, they check first to see if he's exhausted all means to insure compliance with the law without making the City look like a bully.
And maybe the City Council should take a look next week to find out what the consumers in the city are getting from their Consumer Protection Unit.
Big doings this coming week. Not only will the City Council be holding budget hearings Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, but Thursday evening the Planning Commission will hold its first of two hearings on the draft of the land use and circulation element (LUCE) update released just over the weekend by the planning department.
The Thursday, May 22, Planning Commission hearing will take place not at the usual City Council Chambers location, but at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium East Wing, 1855 Main Street. The second meeting will take place Wednesday, May 28 at 7:00 at the City Council Chambers, 1685 Main Street.
For more information about the LUCE meetings, and to access downloadable PDFs of the draft, go to: http://www.shapethefuture2025.net/
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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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