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Oklahoma City, state agencies defend sweep of MidTown outdoor food market

Officials with the city of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City/County Health Department and the ABLE Commission are defending their raid on an inaugural nighttime food market against critics who say the enforcement was selective and heavy-handed.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: August 30, 2011

“I expressed my frustration with the negative perception their mass presence was causing a new, exciting community event,” Daniel said. “They were definitely oblivious to what the event actually was.”

Bates, meanwhile, questioned why authorities couldn't have approached organizers before the event began.

“I found the sheer number of authorities and their overall demeanor to be adversarial and counterproductive,” Bates said. “You don't send two dozen inspectors to converge onto a handful of high-profile food trucks with any other goal than to shut them down and intimidate them. The entire ordeal seemed to be in sharp contrast to city leaders public stance of progress, cooperation with local businesses and forward thinking.”

Bad decision admitted

Event organizers, meanwhile, acknowledge they made one bad decision. Massenat admits that her application for an outdoor event/noise permit was denied the morning of the event because the property doesn't have commercial C-4 zoning (the area is a mix of commercial, industrial and office use). The lack of that permit, however, was not cited in the market's closing.

Records obtained by The Oklahoman, show that Ludivine and Big Truck Tacos applied for other required licenses and discussed their events with the health department and ABLE in advance of the event.

Stranger, owner of Ludivine, said he discussed plans for the market with ABLE Lt. Brent Fairchild three days before the market and was told he had obtained all the appropriate permits and taken all the right steps for serving alcohol at the event.

Jim Hughes, assistant director at ABLE, said the agency contacted Oklahoma City Police on joining them on their surprise inspection after a complaint was filed with his agency. Hughes said that complaint consisted of an agent seeing a story about the event printed in The Oklahoman that same morning.

“We call it a complaint in our system when an agent sees a news story, Facebook, and see information about a catered event,” Hughes said. “When they read it, they were not sure the caterer had a mixed-beverage license.”

Records show that Ludivine received a mixed-beverage license for the event in the meeting Stranger had with Fairchild.

Both Hughes and Dr. Gary Cox, director at the health department, said their agencies did not have time to contact the event organizers in advance. Records obtained by The Oklahoman show that Oklahoma City code inspectors working with the health department were discussing the story via email at 9 a.m. Friday.

Hughes said a surprise visit is the only way to ensure liquor sales are being handled properly and that he doesn't have the manpower to communicate in advance.

Action not preplanned

Hughes and Cox deny their agencies coordinated their response.

“We didn't preplan this thing,” Cox said. “We didn't get a group of folks and say let's converge on 8th and Hudson. It happened independently. We were going to do our inspections and that was it.”

Cox said Friday night was an “unfortunate coming together of events” in which his inspectors did not try to intimidate the vendors or crowd by showing up in a force of 16.

“Could we have done it differently?” Cox asked. “Monday morning quarterbacking, knowing there are only four vendors down there, we probably could have only sent a couple of inspectors. But they were on their way to south Oklahoma City and they wanted to arrive at the same time. Sometimes perception can be reality. What happened here was a lack of communication between the event organizers and the health department. Communication can go both ways.”

Representatives of ABLE and the city say they don't believe their agencies did anything wrong or could have handled themselves differently. Cox, however, 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.