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Emanuel orders crackdown on food truck violators

Food trucks are parked in tow zones on Wacker Dr. between Monroe Street and Adams Street at lunch hour last week. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

There’s nothing wrong with Chicago’s 4-year-old food truck ordinance that can’t be remedied by strict enforcement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday.

Emanuel responded to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 with a promise to do what his own administration has failed to do: Issue a blitzkrieg of citations and fines against food truck owners caught thumbing their noses at the city’s much-ballyhooed ordinance.

The mayor noted that, “You could talk about making changes or alterations” to an ordinance that food truck owners insist unfairly ties their hands and makes it virtually impossible for them to earn a living.

But Emanuel said he’s more concerned about enforcement that has been the exception, not the rule.

“The food truck industry has been a good addition to the city of Chicago. It has not been the threat the restaurant industry originally talked about. That said, the department must enforce the rules. Otherwise, there’s a breakdown in the system. And they have no other choice,” the mayor said.

“The problem you identified in the story, which was appropriate, is the enforcement side. That is the lion’s share of what the story talked about. . . . Other cities had moved on . . . food truck legislation. The industry was growing in other cities. We did not,” Emanuel said. “So we sat down at the table — both the restaurant industry and the emerging food truck industry — and wrote the rules. They wrote [them] appropriately. It’s incumbent upon the department to enforce those rules.”

Emanuel was reminded that he was admonishing his own administration for failing to enforce the 2012 ordinance.

He was asked why it took a newspaper story to expose the fact that City Hall had fallen down on the job.

“I was not aware of it until I read the piece. If you go talk to the department, they now know exactly where the mayor stands. You can just take that and put that away in the in box part,” he said.

The joint investigation by the Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team recently found the 2012 food-truck ordinance is frequently violated but rarely enforced by the Emanuel administration.

The investigation, which was published by the newspaper and aired by ABC7 last week, showed food trucks breaking the rules on a virtually daily basis at downtown locations within a few blocks of City Hall, including the 100 block of South Wacker Drive and the 100 block of South Clark Street.

The Illinois Food Truck Owners Association last week called the city rules so “blatantly crazy” that they have “led to some members of our community parking in inappropriate locations and acting in a desperate fashion.”

Under the ordinance Emanuel proposed and the City Council approved in October 2012, the administration designated 37 “mobile food vehicle stands” across the city and ended the restriction against cooking on food trucks.

No other food trucks are allowed to park in the same block outside of a stand, while trucks are not supposed to operate in the same spot for longer than two hours.

But the Sun-Times and ABC7 found the time limit is routinely ignored. And there often are as many as 13 trucks in a downtown block, with some jammed into tow zones, turn lanes and bus stops outside the food truck stands.

Two City Hall departments — Transportation and Business Affairs and Consumer Protection — were given enforcement authority under the 2012 ordinance. But the Department of Transportation has never issued any tickets for violating the ordinance, and the business affairs agency has won fines in only five cases, none since 2013.

The Emanuel administration has collected about $37,000 in fines from food trucks in 65 cases brought by police and the Health Department in the past five years, officials said.

The ordinance also says food trucks must be equipped with Global Positioning System devices that track their location. But the city has never asked them to provide the data.

Food truck operators readily admit to ignoring the rules but say the ordinance is so onerous they have no other option. If they follow the regulations, many say, they would go out of business.

Critics say Chicago officials favor brick-and-mortar restaurants and have crafted the most stringent rules against food trucks of any major city.

Two food-truck operators filed a lawsuit against the city two weeks after the council approved the ordinance.

In the still-pending case in Cook County Circuit Court, the plaintiffs argued that the courts should overturn the longstanding rule that’s supposed to keep food trucks 200 feet from restaurants. They also called the GPS requirement an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and alleged that there are too few food-truck stands in downtown Chicago.