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Emails Reveal Coordination Between Downtown Restaurant Owner and Council Member to Cripple Food Trucks

Public records request shines a light on the anti-competitive motivations behind vending ordinance being considered by Metro Council this evening

Louisville, Ky.—Emails brought to light by a public records request from the Institute for Justice (IJ) reveal how Louisville Metro Council member Barbara Sexton-Smith leaned on Metro officials on behalf of a restaurant owner to cripple food trucks. IJ submitted its request back in November 2018, but only received these emails after suing Sexton-Smith and three other council members in Kentucky state court following nearly eight months of stonewalling.

VIEW EMAILS REFERENCED IN THIS RELEASE
VIEW ALL EMAILS PROVIDED TO IJ BY COUNCIL MEMBERS

The emails provided to IJ show how Sexton-Smith and others used Metro resources to hamstring vendors, even when doing so flouted the law. In a March 2018 email to restaurant owner Matthew Saltzman, for instance, Sexton-Smith reminded him that, “as soon as we were asked to post ‘No Food Truck’ signs in various locations we did just that.” But the “No Food Truck” signs posted by Louisville Parking Authority, which forbade all food trucks from parking at certain locations, were illegal since Metro’s 150-foot ban applied only to vendors who sold “similar food” as a nearby restaurant—not all vendors.

As part of a June 2018 federal consent decree, Louisvillle agreed to end its unconstitutional 150-foot ban and take down the illegal “No Food Truck” signs. But even while that agreed decree was waiting for the judge’s approval, Sexton-Smith emailed Saltzman to undermine it, telling him that she would: “love to level the playing field immediately.” What had Saltzman recommended in a March 2018 email? Raising the cost of reserving a parking space to $150 a day, limiting the number of food trucks that could park in the central business district to only seven, and prohibiting food trucks from reserving spots more than twice per month. In other words, pushing food trucks out of the downtown so they wouldn’t compete with his restaurant. Rather than rebuff the request, Sexton-Smith followed up with Metro officials to see if they could make Saltzman’s recommendations a reality.

“It took months of legal action to get council members to respond to our simple public records request and now we understand why,” said IJ Managing Attorney Arif Panju. “These emails show the cozy relationship between a downtown restaurant owner and Council member Barbara Sexton-Smith. Before the ink was even dry on the city’s agreement to end the federal lawsuit involving the 150-foot ban, Sexton-Smith was searching for new ways to cripple food trucks. That search led to the proposed vending ordinance the Metro Council will consider this evening.”

Despite being the leading cheerleader for restaurant protectionism, Sexton-Smith projected a far different image to the public. When she first introduced the vending ordinance in October 2018, members of the general public were outraged and reached out to Sexton-Smith and others to voice their opposition. But despite her support for Saltzman’s desire to “level the playing field,” Sexton-Smith’s emails cast her as a true friend to the food trucks. In various emails to constituents, Sexton-Smith professed that “I definitely do not want to limit competition” and “we need to industry to grow even more.”

“We are disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that a council member would publicly support food trucks while working behind the scenes to undermine these budding business owners,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “Louisville residents appreciate having more food options, and politicians shouldn’t try to take those options away so that well-connected restaurateurs don’t have to compete. Anti-competitive vending rules, like the ones advocated for by Saltzman and introduced by Council members Sexton-Smith and Brandon Coan, both stifle consumer choice and close off an important way for food entrepreneurs to achieve their piece of the American Dream.”

At its public meeting Thursday, August 22 at 6:00 p.m., the Metro Council will consider the ordinance introduced by Sexton-Smith, Brandon Coan and Pat Mulvihill: O-374-18. The ordinance was recommended for disapproval by the Public Works Committee on August 13.

***Leah Stewart, president of the Louisville Food Truck Association, will be attending the meeting along with several other food truck owners and will be available for interviews.***

Contact Andrew Wimer, IJ Assistant Communications Director, to set up interviews.

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