Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Doing Cart Wheels

As of this posting the full council has yet to vote on Intro 665, but the Consumer Affairs Committee did narrowly pass the measure by a three to two vote earlier in the day-which is remarkable considering the legislation is being pushed by both the mayor and the speaker. The contretemps is indicative of the bill's flaws, as well as the failure of both sides of city hall to involve the impacted retailers in the crafting of the legislation.

The statements by the committee members explaining their votes was elucidating. John Liu in particular was trenchant in his dissection of the flaws in the legislation; dramatically questioning the rationale that increasing the supply of fresh produce would, at the same time, increase demand. He also questioned the setting up of the supermarket commission only after the carts were placed out onto the streets, and wondered why the administration wouldn't do a small pilot program to first test the efficacy of the concept.

Likewise, Councilman Gennaro worried about the impact that the peddler proliferation would have on the Korean green grocers-a worry that was echoed by Oliver Koppell who nevertheless voted in favor. Gennaro said-underscoring a point that we had previously advanced-that the city should map the produce outlets first before setting up targeted peddler areas.. He said that the bill's fallacy was that it based the peddler areas on consumption figures and not on the availability of retail outlets.

Koppell, even though he expressed a real concern for the viability of the green grocers, voted in favor of the measure when the speaker got his precinct area eliminated from the scope of the bill. f this hadn't been done, than the speaker would have been on the short end of the 3-2 vote.

The revised bill, aside from the reduction in vendors and in the number of precincts, also contains a provision for a review panel. The composition of the panel, and the methodology it uses to evaluate the plan, will go along way to determine the reliability of its conclusions. Under the bill's language, the panel will examine, "the consumption of fruits and vegetables, disaggregated by neighborhood." The sheer volume of peddler business, however, will fail to tell us if new demand has been created and met-since there is no provision here to examine the sales of contiguous produce retailers in an effort to see if the peddlers have cannibalized existing sales of fruits and vegetables. This measurement needs to be an integral part of any equitable evaluation process.

Finally, as we said this morning, the establishment of the supermarket commission-if it acts aggressively to devise a real policy of retention and promotion-is a good step forward; and the creation of "a new position a at the City's Economic Development Corporation that will work with the retail food industry to enable them to better serve our neighborhoods" (the speaker's memo), is exactly what we said this morning about changing the locus of policy making away from DOH.

And it goes without saying that the speaker's proposal to "expand the City's healthy Bodega initiative in ways that will help bodegas and green grocers sell fruits and vegetables in our communities," is exactly what we have been urging (here, here, here, and here )all along-the creation of a collaborative public private partnership that eschews the punitive regulatory mindset.

Now that the green carts are on the way it's incumbent on the city to live up to its promises-and not simply talk the talk. The willingness of this administration to act proactively to nurture and grow neighborhood business is no certainty-given its track record. We're willing to suspend our disbelief at least for a short while since we know that the sincerity of people like Ben Thomasses is unquestioned. The jury is out, however, on other decision makers down at city hall.