The city of Calexico’s controversial proposed swap-meet ordinance--with expanded regulations guiding the licensing and operation of outdoor marketplaces --was to get its first public vetting on Sept. 4.
Preliminary approval of the measure was scheduled to be considered at the city council meeting, which was held after this newspaper’s deadline.
Some members of the public, as well as Santo Tomas swap meet owners and former vendors, blame the proposal for causing the demise of the 45-year-old swap-meet in the aftermath of a 2018 fire.
Not actually a new ordinance, the reconstituted swap-meet law is technically a wholesale amendment to a barebones 1976 chapter of the city’s municipal code on business licenses and regulations governing swap meets.
The “ordinance” has been floating around the community in draft form since June when it was made available to both Santo Tomas officials and the ownership of Las Palmas swap meet to elicit feedback. It contains, among its long list of conditions for operating swap meets, a controversial passage that spells out what vendors are supposed to do with their merchandise at the close of each business day.
The perception among the vendors and Santo Tomas operators is that the ordinance would force vendors to pack up and move their merchandise daily. As such, it was cited early as a death sentence for those working the swap meet.
Santo Tomas vendors claimed moving out the merchandise every day was an undue hardship on them, while swap meet operators insisted providing city-approved storage facilities for vendor merchandise was a financial burden for Santo Tomas.
Outdoor vendor stalls stuffed and stacked high with all sorts of goods provided the fuel for a Dec. 8, 2018, inferno at Santo Tomas. The nighttime blaze was caused by a faulty and non-code-complaint electrical outlet, the city’s fire chief confirmed months ago.
The blaze set off a chain of events leading to the city filing suit against Santo Tomas to shut it down over numerous alleged building and fire code violations. Santo Tomas eventually decided to close on its own on June 30.
The stunning move came just weeks after the city reached an agreement to temporarily allow the business to reopen. Santo Tomas closed with more than 50 alleged code violations left to be fixed.
The reference to merchandise storage in the proposed measure doesn’t even mention removing it from the site daily; rather, it focuses on storage options. It is the lengthiest of a list of 14 numbered entries describing the “minimum standards” of swap meet operations. It reads, in part:
“During non-operating hours, all vendor merchandise, materials and property shall be stored in fully enclosed structures intended for that purpose. All structures used for storage shall be approved by the city’s Building Department and Fire Department prior to their use for storage … Permanent storage structures shall have concrete foundations. Acceptable alternatives to permanent storage structures include prefabricated storage units, metal containers, and trucks. All merchandise shall be stored in an orderly manner that allows for proper clearances for entry of public safety personnel. … Structures that are used for storage shall have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security.”
Meanwhile, the proposed amended ordinance that was to go before the city Sept. 4 details the steps and approvals a prospective swap-meet proprietor must go through to get licensed with the city. It includes an application process that must be heavily investigated and inspected by the police and fire departments and the Building/Planning Department.
All involved would draw up what is referred to as a “joint report” recommending approval or disapproval to the city Finance Department, which has say over the who gets a business license. There would be a strict appeals process that would involve the city manager’s office.
Vendors would need a city business license, State Board of Equalization seller’s permit and city fire inspection report all in “plain view” at each stall.
There are also ample warnings in the law against the sale of stolen goods. In fact, according to a report by City Manager David Dale in the Sept. 4 meeting agenda it appears one of the main reasons for the proposed amended ordinance is because of the susceptibility of swap meets to be places where stolen goods can be disposed of or sold.
According to the proposed amendment, each swap-meet operator’s license would be good for one year. Upon renewal for year two the complete application and inspection process for new licenses must be repeated. In year three and beyond, no such application would be needed, but annual inspections still required.
Everything else is just expansion of the requirements and conditions for licensing, including entries on expiration and renewal, suspension and revocation, and appeals and reapplication processes.
Arguably the most important part of the proposed amended ordinance is the list of “minimum standards,” where the meat of the rules and regulations reside, and conditions affecting public safety are detailed. Highlights among the 14 points are:
Vending sites: each vendor is to be provided with a “safe, sanitary, and dust-abated stall or vending site.” Fire extinguishers are to be provided to each vendor site by the owner/operator;
Toilets: one “flush toilet” is required for every 25 vendor sites;
Structures and improvements: all structures and improvements shall be up to the most current “building regulations and uniform codes”;
Parking: three parking spaces are required for every (one) vending stall, and the parking lot must have some sort of dust-control measures in place;
Refuse collection and vector control: trash receptacles must be emptied daily, and “a refuse collection and vector control (meaning insects, vermin and other potential sources of infectious disease) plan shall be submitted to the county Public Health Department for review and approval”;
Merchandise prohibited: vendors cannot sell animals, vehicles (unless conditionally approved on a day-to-day basis by the city), tires, flammable paints, lacquers, thinners and other flammable chemicals, firearms and ammunition, drugs considered to be scheduled controlled substances by the federal government (federal laws do not recognize California’s legalization of cannabis, medicinal or recreational) and drug paraphernalia, propane and gas tanks, and fireworks;
Fire codes: all current California Fire Codes must be adhered to, “all-weather surfaces” must be maintained on fire lanes, proper fire lane widths are required, all roof and structure coverings must be pre-approved, and there must be adherence to all regulations restricting electrical and other hazards, and to all regulations restricting “ingress and egress for public safety”;
Food service: must be regulated by county Public Health prior to service. Failure to show such approval can be cause for revocation of business license;
Temporary food vendors: at the end of the day, temporary food vendors shall remove all food items from swap meet site;
Control of fine particulate matter (fugitive dust): operation of swap meet must meet rules and regulations of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District regarding fine particulate matter (dust).
Another key component of the proposed amended ordinance maintains that swap-meet owners/operators supply the city’s police chief/police inspector with information on each vendor upon request during normal business hours. This includes name, address, copy of driver license, proof of liability insurance for any vehicle the vendor brings on site, signature, description of merchandise to be sold/property, and copy of U.S. identification card.
Violations of any provisions of this proposed ordinance would be dealt with by any remedy allowed by law, according to the proposed ordinance. This includes being “subject to criminal sanctions, civil actions, administrative penalties, administrative citations, license suspension, and(/or) license revocation.”
Enforcement of penalties would be the responsibility of the city manager.
The defunct Santo Tomas was not the only swap meet in alleged violation of various codes. Las Palmas Swap Meet at 1305 Ollie Ave. has about 18 alleged fire code violations, according to a Feb. 28 fire inspection report provided to this newspaper by the city manager’s office in early July.
City Manager Dale said at the time Las Palmas’ ownership, El Remate Inc., was willing to make the necessary corrections. The city was not requiring action until after the new ordinance was approved and in effect, he added.