TUPELO • With the final form of food truck regulations awaiting City Council action, the chefs who own and operate those trucks are watching – closely.
And they aren’t the only ones.
There are lawyers out there watching, too. Across the nation, cities that impose certain kinds of restrictions on where food trucks can operate tend to find themselves the target of legal action.
These suits, often linked with a libertarian-minded legal action group or food truck trade associations, tend to provoke a typical response. Municipalities many times just fold and withdraw objectionable prohibitions rather than fight lawsuits.
At least some members of the Tupelo City Council want to impose rules that have resulted in legal problems elsewhere.
However, the likelihood that those proposals win a vote declined Friday when Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer reversed course.
“I have almost done an about face,” Palmer told the Daily Journal. “At the present time, as far as an ordinance on food trucks, I think we probably right now have exactly what we need.”
Palmer said his current stance is dependent on the enforcement of the city’s two-hour limit for downtown parking.
These comments make it more likely that no major revisions occur to a draft ordinance presented to the City Council last week by Mayor Jason Shelton’s administration. That ordinance contained relatively minor rules – such as the requirement of a mobile vending permit – and was met with no objections by food truck owners who attended the meeting.
Previously, Palmer joined his voice with Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan and asked that the ordinance be changed to limit food truck access to downtown parking.
Parking restrictions, especially those designed to keep food trucks away from restaurants and other brick-and-mortar food retailers, have consistently drawn legal challenges.
The Institute for Justice has been a key player in the world of food truck legal advocacy. It has sued on behalf of food truck owners across the county, including cities like Baltimore; Chicago; Carolina Beach, North Carolina; El Paso, Texas; Gibraltar, Wisconsin; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Antonio, Texas.
The IJ has also taken legal action against broader street vending regulations in San Juan County, Washington; Atlanta; and Hialeah, Florida.
“When cities make food trucks illegal, IJ fights backs!” the non-profit legal group wrote on social media platform Twitter after a recent victory.
These lawsuits often get results without a protracted court battle.
Carolina Beach, El Paso, Louisville and San Antonio all dropped or revised ordinances that either imposed distance requirements around brick-and-mortar establishments or otherwise sharply restricted the movement of food trucks.
A few cities have put up a fight.
After food trucks won an initial victory in Baltimore, appeals remain ongoing. Food trucks and the IJ were also rebuffed in Chicago, but the matter is pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.
A little bit closer to home, the Mississippi Justice Institute has warned the Tupelo City Council against protectionist food truck rules, using much the same language and array of arguments deployed by the IJ.
The MJI is the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which is affiliated with the State Policy Network.
It and the MCPP are not institutionally linked with the IJ, but they are all associated with the same circle of well-moneyed libertarian-minded donors, including Charles and David Koch.
MJI has filed actions within the state defending charter schools, attacking taxi regulations and highlighting open meeting violations.
In communication with City Hall earlier this year, an MJI representative pointed Tupelo leaders toward a manual of policy recommendations written by the IJ.
This manual describes what the IJ views as legitimate issues food truck regulations can address, including food safety and trash disposal.
The IJ, for example, supports rules that require trucks to provide a trash bin of some kind and to pick up directly around the truck any discarded trash that was originally dispensed from the truck, such as food wrappers.
The organization also deems rules against parking excessively close to an intersection as legitimate.
City attorney Ben Logan told the council last week that his research include a review of the IJ manual, as well as material published by the American Planning Association and the National League of Cities.