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Anonymous complaints serve up a heap of trouble

'Snitch City' series • Food carts show complaint-driven system hazards
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The Flavour Spot waffle cart on North Mississippi Avenue was the target of a complaint to the city. Owner Dave Sokamer would like to know who filed the complaint, but that information is confidential.

Dave Stokamer just wants a name. He thinks he knows who complained about his North Mississippi food cart to the city, but he isn't sure. He has no plans for revenge, no tit for tat. Somebody took up a lot of his time for what amounted to next to nothing. He'd just like to know who. And maybe, why.

Stokamer has company. Portland's policy of keeping confidential the names of those who complain about others has become a tricky business, and nowhere more so than in the food cart industry.

Food cart owners have lost their businesses because of code violations that were found after complaints, and a number of them say they they'd like to know who was responsible. Others, such as Stokamer, say they've had to deal with mostly unfounded complaints. For business owners operating on small profit margins, the time and hassle can be costly.

On the other hand, city officials say, consider the elderly woman living alone, kept awake at night by a high-decibel garage band next door. She might not feel comfortable complaining about the noise violation if she knows those teen musicians can find out who dropped the dime.

Mike Liefeld, enforcement manager for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, says an exclusively complaint-driven system is more fair, and less open to political influence. But he needs complaints, and he needs citizens who feel comfortable complaining.

In Portland, if you need complaints, you're in fine shape focusing on the food cart industry. Up and down North Mississippi Avenue, food cart owners say they had complaints filed against them or the property on which they were parked. The complaints started coming in soon after Roger Goldingay opened the Mississippi Market food cart pod on North Mississippi Avenue.

Goldingay says he called in complaints, but only one or two. It was mostly a business decision, he says. He'd like people to understand why.

Two years ago, Goldingay decided to put in what might be described as the next generation of food cart pods. He blacktopped, put in canopies to keep diners out of the rain and reached a deal with neighboring Prost Brewpub that allows food cart customers to take their food out of the cold and into the pub, as long as they buy a drink inside.

Goldingay also consulted with the city's Bureau of Development Services and obtained all the required city permits. The whole deal cost him more than $100,000. It forced him, Goldingay says, to require higher rent from owners of food carts who leased space in Mississippi Marketplace.

Goldingay says he looked around and saw competitors who hadn't done any of that, and who were violating city codes. Because Portland operates an exclusively complaint-driven system, it's not as if he could have expected the city to take a look at the competition's food carts if he didn't notify inspectors.

So Goldingay complained - not about the food carts, he says, but about the properties on which they stand.

'I did it to protect my food cart tenants, my clients,' Goldingay says. 'It's an unfair competitive advantage. I don't have anything against the food carts. What I have is a problem with the property owners who are cutting corners and are able to rent their property to food carts at a reduced rate.'

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Greg Abbott, owner of Whiffies Fried Pies on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, has dealt with what he sees as nuisance complaints that have little to do with his food cart or his food.

Put out of business

Many food cart owners have stories about complaints, but few know for certain whom to blame. Some think they know who complained. Possibly as a result, there have been a number of incidents of late-night food cart vandalism reported by cart owners this year.

But Goldingay says he still thinks the complaint system should be kept confidential.

'It gives people confidence that they can file a complaint and they're not going to be harassed by their neighbors, even if they are wrong,' he says.

Stokamer sees it differently. He says whoever called in a complaint against his food cart tried to put him out of business. He'd been open for three years, seven days a week, with no complaints, barely making a living, when a city inspector came by.

'Did I piss somebody off?' Stokamer asks. 'He did a laundry list of different things that were all bull--,' he says of whoever filed the complaint. 'I'd rather put myself out of business forever than do business like that.'

Gregg Abbott, who owns Whiffies Fried Pies on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, says he's been victimized by nuisance complaints about his Hawthorne Boulevard food carts that didn't even involve a food cart competitor. A nearby property owner lodged dozens of complaints about the Hawthorne pod, he says.

One violation, Abbott says, was a garbage can that was legal, but in the wrong spot. City inspectors were frequent visitors. It was because of a grudge match between one property owner and another.

Abbott is convinced that the city's confidentiality policy makes it too easy for citizens to use city resources as a way to carry out personal grudges. He'd like some sort of consequence for people who file unfounded complaints, maybe something similar to tort reforms intended to discourage frivolous lawsuits.

A grudge at issue?

Kevin Sandri recently got out of the food cart business. The longtime owner of Garden State food cart says the city's complaint process needs a little tweaking, at least.

'It's abused and it's ridiculous,' Sandri says. 'It's almost always someone who has a grudge.'

Sandri had a cart in Goldingay's Mississippi Market pod, but before that he had a cart in Sellwood that was the focus of complaints that he is convinced had nothing to do with his cart. Two property owners were disputing who had title to the lot where he rented space.

'It had nothing to do with things the city should really care about - health and fairness. It was more just a tool for rival property owners to screw with each other,' Sandri says.

Maybe, Sandri says, the system should include a way for the falsely accused to learn who complained about them.

'If you're going to make these accusations and send inspectors down there at the city's expense, you'd better know exactly what you're talking about,' he says. 'And if you know what you're talking about, you'll put your name on it.'

In court, the accused have the right to face their accusers. Apparently that's not the case with code violations. In actuality it is, according to Susan Mandiberg, a Lewis and Clark law school professor.

With code violations, the actual accuser is the city, Mandiberg says. The complainant is more comparable to a witness in a court case, but one who the prosecution doesn't need to appear in court.

'You do know your accuser, your accuser is the city,' Mandiberg says.

As for the grudge matches, Liefeld says the city doesn't maintain a formal policy to cut off people who repeatedly file unfounded complaints. But, he says, if staff have investigated four unfounded complaints by one neighbor against another, on the fifth complaint they generally don't conduct as thorough an inspection.

John Dutt, information and referral manager for the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says his office gets as many as 10 or 15 complaint calls a day, and he'd like to see more of them handled without city interference.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Portland food carts on Southwest Fourth Avenue and College Street are directly across the street from the city bureau responsible for responding to building and development code.

'We're always trying to say, 'Did you talk to your neighbor?' Usually it's 'No, no, I could never talk to them. They'd be upset.' '

Dutt says he's starting to think that a city so responsive to citizen complaints can breed an unintended consequence - people not trying to handle their own problems, and others using the city for petty complaints.

'It does enable some people that just like to be complainers to complain, because something happens,' Dutt says.

Dutt is beginning to think maintaining the confidentiality of complainers in all cases might be a mistake. Yes, he says, there are cases where complainers have reason to fear retaliation if their names are released, but Dutt thinks those cases are few relative to the calls he gets from people who think they have a right to know who complained about them.

'Personally, I think if there's an issue you want to file a complaint about, you should feel comfortable identifying who you are. It's one of those personal responsibility things,' Dutt says.

With his inspection staff cut from 37 to 20, Liefeld says his bureau only has time to investigate three out of every four complaints. Inspectors have to prioritize. Health, safety and environmental concerns push a complaint to the top of the list, Liefeld says. Nuisance complaints fall toward the bottom of the list. Of course, the definition of nuisance is always open to interpretation.

Stokamer says after the complaint about his North Mississippi Flavour Spot waffle cart, a city inspector spent close to an entire morning taking photos and asking questions. After all that, Stokamer was told to take down a small, white tarp covering two picnic tables and make sure the electrical outlet he used received an inspection.

'It was a waste of resources for the city for sure,' Stokamer says. 'I can't imagine there wasn't something more important that needed to get done.'


City's complaint system makes sense legally

Should the city respond to complaints? Sure, says Kevin Sandri, until recently the owner/operator of Garden State food cart at two locations.

Should the city only take action when a complaint is made, even if city inspectors know of other properties and businesses that are violating the same city regulation? Sandri doesn't think so.

Sandri says a system that relies exclusively on complaints may be tilted a little bit too far in one direction. He says a city inspector told him that the food cart pod on Southwest Fourth Avenue and College Street, right below the Bureau of Development Services offices, has carts with obvious code violations and that the inspectors know it. But they won't do anything about it until formal complaints are made.

'An inspector told me this,' Sandri says. He says the inspector told him: 'I know they're in violation. I can see their violations. But until someone complains I can't do anything about it.' '

Sandri says that policy doesn't make sense and breeds a sense that the system isn't fair. At least, he says, inspectors should pursue violations of which they are aware, complaint or not.

John Dutt, information and referral manager for the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says he hears from people who feel similarly.

'They're upset because they got a letter saying, 'Clean up your yard,' but their neighbor's yard is three times worse,' Dutt says.

Lewis and Clark Law School professor Susan Mandiberg says that whether the city operates on an exclusively complaint driven model or not, city bureaus and their enforcement agents are going to use their discretion in choosing what to investigate.

Investigators driving around looking for food cart violations would still be exercising discretion, Mandiberg says, because they would have to choose which streets to drive down and which violations to write up.

'It's not perfect emotional sense and perfect political sense, but it is perfect legal sense,' Mandiberg says of they city's exclusively complaint-driven system.

- Peter Korn