It's an issue that has dragged out for about two years before Tualatin city officials — but later this month, a majority on the Tualatin City Council agreed Monday, Sept. 11, the council will consider adopting a permanent set of regulations for food carts and trucks.
Council members have expressed increasing dismay as the process, which began after the City Council agreed to review the case of a Hawaiian shave ice truck that the city notified in 2015 could not operate in Tualatin city limits, has stretched into its second year.
The Pupu Shack, a family business staffed principally by teenagers and young adults, sold shave ice in Tualatin until city staff determined in 2015 that city code did not allow for food carts and trucks. After the food truck appealed to the City Council, the council adopted a temporary ordinance broadly allowing mobile food vendors in the city.
On Monday, Mayor Lou Ogden suggested the city should just leave the temporary ordinance in place.
"What has been the downside, in our fair community, of allowing food trucks, or having taken the prohibition out of our ordinance? … I see no damage having been done," Ogden said.
Ogden took an apologetic tone as he addressed city planners who presented a draft ordinance that would largely box food carts and trucks out of the downtown area — including the corner of Boones Ferry Road and Nyberg Street, where The Pupu Shack typically sets up shop during warm-weather months. That ordinance has been tweaked since a July council work session, said Planning Manager Aquilla Hurd-Ravich, after the council balked at a previous proposal last fall.
"Frankly, I think you've been pushed and pulled in many different directions, a lot of it coming out of my chair, I think — and perhaps some of the other councilors, to a lesser degree," Ogden told them. "So I really commend you for the work and effort, and I think it probably hasn't been easy and maybe not always satisfying for you, but thank you for doing that."
When the mobile food vending issue first came before the council, Ogden was vocal about not wanting to encourage food cart pods — commonplace in Portland, and established in some other suburbs — to set up shop in Tualatin. He said he finds them unsightly and would not want to deal with their public impact.
But at Monday's meeting, Ogden likened the issue to a story an aunt had told him when he was young, about a man who sat on a street corner swinging a wristwatch on a chain all day and explained to her that he was "keeping away the wild elephants."
"She said, 'There aren't any wild elephants around here for thousands of miles.' He said, 'Exactly. See what good a job I'm doing?'" Ogden recounted. "And I feel like that's what we're doing. We're doing a great job of keeping the food trucks away with the ordinance. We're kind of swinging our watch on a gold chain, when in reality, over the last almost two years, what deluge of food trucks have come into the city and set up shop and created these ugly pods and the vermin and all these things associated with it?"
Ogden said he has come to believe that restaurant-owners' concerns about food trucks moving in and cutting into their business are "probably not grounded in reality at the present time," as evidenced simply by the fact that the temporary ordinance has been in place for more than a year and The Pupu Shack is Tualatin's only mainstay food truck. He said the temporary ordinance seems good enough for now, and the draft ordinance restricting where mobile food vendors can set up and how they operate should be held for now.
"If we ever see the wild elephants, we've got an elephant gun," Ogden said. "In the meantime, let's leave it in the box would be my recommendation."
But other members of the City Council said they are tired of dealing with the issue and want to be done with it.
"First and foremost is I do not want to push this on to another council two years from now," said Councilor Paul Morrison, noting that he wasn't even on the council when it began debating the issue and the composition of the council may well change before the next time it picks it up.
He added, "I would like to just settle this and be done with this and move on down the road."
Councilor Robert Kellogg, also new to the council, said he does not think it is good enough for the City Council to keep a stricter ordinance in its back pocket instead of immediately addressing restaurant-owners' concerns about the potential for competition from mobile food vendors that may have significantly lower operating costs.
"Putting off the decision on this may be the right political move, but what happens if a truck does come in and parks in front of Mashita (Teriyaki) and is selling teriyaki for two bucks less?" Kellogg asked, posing a hypothetical. "Then we've got a problem, and something that we won't be able to solve with an emergency (declaration) — it'll take a month or two, and who knows? That may be enough margin off of their business that they have to go out of business."
Councilors also discussed the idea of modifying the draft ordinance to either create a waiver for mobile food vendors that can prove they are not directly competing with any existing restaurants or grandfather in The Pupu Shack under the existing temporary ordinance, allowing it to keep operating at the corner of Boones Ferry Road and Nyberg Street. But they were dissuaded after Hurd-Ravich, City Attorney Sean Brady and City Manager Sherilyn Lombos pointed out the difficulties for the city in crafting and regulating carveouts from the ordinance.
Councilor Frank Bubenik noted, "Pupu Shack could still operate, they just couldn't operate at the location they're in. They would have to move. So they could keep on selling the shaved ice and the waffles, they just, they can't do it from that location when this ordinance, or if this ordinance, takes effect. They just have to find a new location. Food carts in Portland have to find new locations all the time."
The council next meets on Monday, Sept. 25. It is expected to consider adopting the proposed ordinance at that meeting.