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Peeling the Onion

by Steve Lackmeyer Published: August 29, 2011

Someone has got to do it…. and I like onions.

In a dark parking lot, surrounded by chaos, I filed my first story on the raid of the inaugural H&8th outdoor food market in MidTown. I took my best shot at it, with what few resources I had (I went out for a taco, and had neither a camera, notebook or pen). The story blew out all readership numbers throughout the weekend at NewsOK. And I initially was hit with demands for a retraction by representatives of the ABLE Commission, who at first argued there were only a handful of people involved in the raid and that they had no part in it (they have since backed off from both claims). Organizers weren’t completely forthright with me either – it took them until Saturday to fess up they chose to hold the event without the outdoor permit.

My first in-depth look at what went wrong Friday night is now online. I spent all weekend working on it. Yep. I even missed listening to part of my beloved Casey Kasem 70s AT 40 show. I love that show. But the phone kept on ringing. It started ringing Saturday morning and never stopped.
So we’re cutting into the sucker, and what do we find? We find organizers of H&8th who didn’t get everything figured out before they delved into this event. We find food trucks that thought they had all permits and details taken care of – and in some cases they might not have done anything wrong. We find a “swat team” as one person observed, of 27 people, descending on this event and choosing not to contact organizers instead.
But there are a lot of questions, more fundamental issues, I’m about to tackle. Questions about fairness. Questions about whether an emerging industry is being stomped on in an inequitable manner, and if so, for what purpose? I’ve got questions about what seems to me to be a Byzantine set of rules and requirements that any one of us would probably get wrong. And my questions keep going back to my very first thought: is this how we would respond if we were in that position of authority? Would we choose the surprise attack? Or would we contact the organizers and advise them they might not have taken care of all details, and try to see if they can be helped to overcome such oversights?
Did 27 people need to spend two hours out at H&8th? Or could one person have helped guide these event organizers toward either canceling and delaying the party or addressing fundamental problems in time to let plans proceed?
This was an in-depth effort. Reality dictates not everything will make it into print. First, a couple of items that got cut from the print story:

- City Manager Jim Couch, who attended the market, said he was unaware of the raid when it started, but did notice high-point beer was being sold from the COOP trailer and a lack of trash cans. He also wondered why the operator of Hugo’s was cooking fajitas without any refrigerator visible.
“My impression as ‘hmmm… maybe we should have had more planning on this,’” Couch said. “But I’m not saying we should use Gestapo type tactics. I feel bad for those guys. I was looking for a fun night.”

- Dr. Gary Cox, director of the Oklahoma City/County Health Department, said his agency is using the controversy as a means to see whether improvements can be made in responding to special events and educating food truck operators. “We’re looking at changes as a result of this incident,” Cox said. “We’re reliant on education. We’re not heavy-handed enforcers. One thing we want all these mobile vendors to do is get together and show them all the regulations and work on creating a better situation for the future.”

TIMELINE OF THE CONTROVERSY:

TIMELINE

With so much in dispute about the raid of the H&8th outdoor food market Friday night, all involved sides agreed they read a story previewing the event earlier that day in The Oklahoman.

Officials with ABLE, the Oklahoma City/County Health Department, and Oklahoma City inspectors all verified Monday they weren’t aware of the event until after they read the story.

Organizers Laura Massenat, Jonathan Stranger and J.D. Merryweather say they started planning the event in July. Stranger visited with the ABLE Commission on Wednesday and believed he had obtained all required permits and was cleared to sell alcohol at the event.

Operators of the Big Truck Taco and Munchbox food trucks both said they applied for required permits and also believed they had cleared all hurdles (efforts to reach operators of the Hugo’s food stand were unsuccessful on Monday).

Massenat said her staff reviewed required permits by both Big Truck and the Munchbox, but not Hugo’s, before the event starting at 8 p.m. Friday.

That day Massenat learned she was rejected for one permit required for outdoor events. She chose to proceed with the event despite lacking the permit.

Records show city inspectors began voicing concerns about the market at 9 a.m. after seeing the newspaper story. Sometime that day, inspectors with the health department saw the story and agreed to add the market to their previously-planned sweep of food trucks in south Oklahoma City.

Agents with the ABLE Commission also decided to inspect the market and Ludivine after seeing the story. Neither the ABLE Commission, health department or city inspectors notified H&8th organizers about their concerns.

ABLE agents arrive with police shortly after the event starts at 8 p.m. Health department inspectors arrive with city inspectors about 8:20 p.m.

Tommy Hand, director of mobile events at Big Truck Tacos, is told by city inspectors that he bought the wrong mobile food truck permit from the city. Shane Mutz, owner of the Munchbox, is told by the fire inspector he is not allowed to use an extension cord to power his vehicle. Mutz reports when he unplugs the cord, he asks if he can retrieve his power generator but is told by health inspectors his vehicle lacks functioning electricity and refrigeration.

Health inspectors report Hugo’s is shut down for lacking screening for his trailer.

ABLE agents move on to nearby Ludivine and cite it for having a box of wine stored outside the restaurant’s hallway. They also discover the bartender’s license had expired four days earlier — a license the bartender promptly renews.

By 9 p.m. the raid is complete and the market is shut down.

 

 

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Reporter Sr.
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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