The LookOut news

City Officials, Ordinance Foes Plot Next Moves

By Oliver Lukacs

October 24 -- With a new ordinance regulating feeding programs now in the books, the National Lawyers Guild is gearing up for a legal battle, the City is scrambling to iron out guidelines and food providers are being forced to make a choice -- stop regular feedings or move indoors.

The ordinance, which is scheduled to go into effect 30 days after its passage Tuesday, targets roughly 30 food providers serving sometimes as many as 300 people by requiring City and County permits in order to distribute free meals in public places.

Under the ordinance, the permits are restricted to three per group or individual every 90 days, with an events permit needed for gatherings of more than 150 people. Violators face a maximum penalty of six months in jail or $1,000 in fines, or both.

Keeping promises made during protests before City Hall, the lawyers guild is plotting its legal strategy to repeal the law.

"We're in the process of seeing how we can best attack it in court," said James Lafferty, the executive director of the guild's Los Angeles chapter. "That ordinance has got loop-holes big enough to drive a truck through. That's part of the reason it's so unconstitutional."

As it stands, the ordinance requires food providers to obtain a permit from the Los Angeles Department of Health and approval of a feeding site from the City of Santa Monica. But City officials are still hammering out procedures.

"We haven't worked out the details of it yet," said Julie Rusk, the City's Human Services supervisor. "That's something we're doing as we speak."

Rusk said she anticipates a "community education period" with County health officers on hand to explain County health codes to food providers before the ordinance is enforced.

Until then Rusk said, "We're piggy backing on County requirements. Whatever the County allows, we will allow, as far as frequency."

According to County officials, the County allows non-profit organizations to hand out free meals three days a year with a permit, but excludes organizations such as churches, which provide food to their congregations but not to the general public.

Even though the health codes primarily govern "retail food facilities," Terrance Powell, the chief environmental health specialist for L.A. County's Department of Health Services, said it encompasses all food given "on public grounds and to the general public."

The health codes were put in place to prevent contamination and food-borne illnesses, Powell said, adding that they were meant to regulate retail food and that the outdoor food providers will probably have a harder time meeting them.

"Those persons engaged in distribution to homeless actually have a higher safety burden than a restaurant, because their targeted audience is much more vulnerable to food borne-illnesses," Powell said.

"Something that would lock you or me in a bathroom overnight would have dire consequences," Powell said pointing out that most homeless people usually don't have access to medical care, and -- as evidenced on Promenade storefront doorways -- sometimes even bathrooms.

Both County and City permits, which are required to be shown at every location where food is provided, would be free to non-profit food programs. However, they would only be good for 48 hours and could take more than a week to get from the County, which scrutinizes every application, Powell said.

Powell said that the questions on the application include how the handlers are going to wash their hands and whether there are accessible bathrooms nearby, and require a detailed description of the storage, protection, and production of the food.

Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. suggested when the ordinance went before the Council that a joint police and County health team would share the burden of enforcement. City Attorney Marsha Moutrie however said that "the County would be the principal enforcing body."

Butts said training his officers for inspecting health code violations could take up to six months, but that permit violations could be immediately enforced.

"With the permits you either have it or you don't," said Butts. "It can be efficiently enforced."

Powell said the County inspections will be carried out by a staff of roughly 12 members of the local agency overlooking approximately 1400 facilities on the Westside. Inspections will be random and will use criminal prosecution only as a last resort after putting the provider on notice and giving them an informal "hearing."

"Were not in the business of stopping people from serving food to anyone," Powell said. "The County's stance is not to keep anybody from doing volunteer work. Our sole purpose is food protection and public safety."

Regardless of the health reasons stated in the ordinance, Lafferty said the law is still unconstitutional and his organization will defend anyone arrested or fined. "We don't believe there is any constitutional requirement that one has to have a permit for feeding a hungry person."

The Guild spearheaded a legal battle -- which cost the City thousands of dollars in legal fees -- against a similar ordinance that was struck down by a federal judge in 1993 for being unconstitutional. Lafferty said the laws are comparable.

"They have many similarities and differences, but the fundamental thrust of both ordinances is to try to prevent what people have a right to do," said Lafferty. "We are confident that if we do go to court we will have a similar result."

The ordinance introduced by Council members Pam O'Connor and Richard Bloom was passed with the hopes that it "will diminish the number of projects and the number of distributions" because they "will be unwilling or unable to comply with the state and county requirements," according to the City staff report.

City officials hope the ordinance will spur meal providers to hook up with existing social service agencies and bring their programs indoors.

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