Atlanta Takes “Scorched Earth” Policy Against Local Vendors

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 29, 2013

Atlanta, Ga.
—In a city known as a crucible of civil rights, the mayor and members of the Atlanta City Council are going out of their way to violate the civil rights of vendors who seek nothing more than to earn an honest living.

After vendors scored a major state court victory in December, which threw out the city’s sweetheart deal that forced all vendors to operate with one out-of-state company the city granted a monopoly over street vending, the city’s new response is to put all vendors who operate in public spaces out of business. This includes barring them from selling near Turner Field before Monday’s Major League Baseball Opening Day and the Georgia Dome, which will soon host the NCAA’s Final Four basketball tournament—key opportunities for street vendors to sell their wares.

Bizarrely, the city claims that its crackdown is required by the court’s order in December striking down the city-granted monopoly. But nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing in that order in any way prevents street vending or requires the city to stop it in any way. Indeed, contrary to the city’s claim that the order prevents them from renewing vendors’ licenses, the court’s order specifically states (with emphasis added in italics:) “This ruling is limited to any decision made pursuant to [the city council ordinance and resolution creating the monopoly and the contract with the private company] and the city may continue its other licensing and regulatory operations.”

“Atlanta’s scorched earth policy against vendors is unfortunately what we’ve come to expect from this city government,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Frommer. “Rather than taking reasonable steps to work with vendors and keep them in business, the city is acting like a spoiled child who didn’t get his way. The city is essentially trying to take its ball and go home. But the fact is, these vendors have a right to earn an honest living, and the city of Atlanta cannot violate that right, which is protected by both the Georgia and federal constitutions.”

Despite the court ruling in December, which should have opened vending across the city, the city is now using that ruling as an excuse to shut down all vending on public land citywide, throwing dozens of vendors out of work and tarnishing the city’s reputation right before sporting events that will capture the nation’s attention. The City Council is no longer allowing existing vendors to renew their vending permits and, because it is illegal to display merchandise on the street without a vending permit, that means they are now out of work.

Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua of the Fulton County Superior Court struck down the city’s Public Vending Management Program in December 2012. In 2011, the two longtime street vendors, Larry Miller and Stanley Hambrick, filed suit to challenge Atlanta’s vending regulations that had already put numerous vendors out of business. Miller and Hambrick were represented by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm that represents entrepreneurs nationwide when the government violates their rights.

“The court ruled that Atlanta couldn’t force local entrepreneurs to have to work with a city-enforced government monopoly, and now the city is somehow twisting that clear decision and using it as an excuse to shut down all vending on all public lands in the city,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall. “This new crisis the vendors are facing is a complete fabrication of the city of Atlanta’s making. Rather than let these vendors get back to work, they have concocted this scheme to shut them all down. This harassment of vendors is wrong and it needs to stop.”

In holding that Atlanta exceeded its authority when entering into this anti-competitive arrangement, Judge LaGrua stated that, “Because the [the city council ordinance and resolution creating the monopoly and the contract with the private company ] grant the exclusive right to occupy and use all public property vending sites in the City, the Court finds that, as a matter of law, the City exceeded the powers granted to it in the [Atlanta City] Charter by creating an unauthorized exclusive franchise. Therefore, . . . the Court declares that the [the city council ordinance and resolution creating the monopoly and the contract with the private company ] are void and without effect.”

IJ client and longtime vendor Larry Miller, whose small business has operated outside of Turner Field for more than 20 years, said, “The city needs to stop playing games with my rights and my ability to support my family. It needs to step aside and let me get to work. That’s all I’m asking for. I don’t want a handout; I just want to be left alone to support myself and my family as I’ve done for decades.”

IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “The city of Atlanta should be ashamed of itself for picking on these vendors so mercilessly. Not only is the city of Atlanta now working to shut these vendors down, but city officials are also outright lying about why they’re doing this, trying to somehow state that because a court said the city can’t create a monopoly that all vending must be shut down. That’s wrong, and the city knows it is wrong. All the city needs to do to get these vendors back in business is step aside. The solution is that easy.”