The Merced City Council unanimously agreed on Monday night to recommend Advanced Air — a commuter airline based in Hawthorne — as their top choice to take over this region’s Essential Air Service contract at the Merced Yosemite Regional Airport.
The current carrier at the airport — Boutique Airlines — was downgraded to the city’s third choice overall in a competitive bidding process that will ultimately be decided by the federal Department of Transportation.
The unanimous vote, however, came after a drawn-out discussion, and multiple motions that ended up in a 3-3 tie vote. One council member, Bertha Perez, was not in attendance.
Leaders ultimately sided with city staff members and the Regional Airport Authority recommendation for service by Advance Air. The service would include 28 weekly round trips, split between travel to and from Las Vegas, and travel to and from Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Southern California. Hawthorne is not considered a “commercial service airport,” but it is located four miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The Hawthorne destination also affords Advanced Air the cost-saving ability to strengthen its service to Las Vegas — the most popular destination for Mercedians, according to city officials.
In its bid, Advanced Air stated it would invest $70,000 in marketing their air service and the airport, and city staff revealed they took that into consideration when making their recommendation. In addition, an Advanced Air representative on Monday night said the company was committed to partnering with the community and promised marketing and advertising with the local market in mind. She talked about “bringing people to Merced and taking people from Merced to where they want to go.”
A total of four proposals responded to the bidding process, including from Denver Air and Southern Airways. The coveted EAS subsidy provided by the Department of Transportation (DOT) typically runs for up to four years, at about $3 million a year, or $12 million over four years.
Boutique Airlines, operating for five years at the local airport, currently offers flights to LAX, Las Vegas and Sacramento.
The Regional Airport Authority met in April and created a subcommittee that also met on the issue. The city’s Economic Development Director Frank Quintero told the council the city needed to make a decision to meet a May 24 deadline set by the DOT.
Shawn Simpson, the founder of Boutique Air, appeared somewhat taken aback by the discussion at City Hall on Monday night in Merced.
He told leaders his company transported a record 78,000 passengers from the Merced airport since it started in 2015. He said the airline, like others, had to endure tough times during the COVID-19 pandemic. And he said the company has been in negotiations with a local group to expand and refurbish maintenance facilities at the airport, and develop a training center that would add at least 20 new jobs for local Mercedians.
Tom Lopes of the Gateway Air Center spoke up at the meeting, saying he had worked on the project for a year and a half, and had designs he wanted to show. He decried the bidding process and recommendation to the DOT.
“This whole process, what’s happening right here, has never happened like this before ever,” he told city leaders. “It’s always been at least a 4-month process at the airport commission.”
Lopes claimed meetings were canceled and reset, and there wasn’t enough time for public comment.
“There’s something wrong,” he said. “This whole thing has been been ramrodded at the last minute to give you guys no choice.”
Lopes urged leaders to kick the issue back down to the airport commission for more discussion.
At least two members of the City Council agreed with that idea. Councilman Fernando Echevarria mentioned that his absent colleague Bertha Perez should be in on the decision.
However, Councilman Kevin Blake took issue with the Boutique Airlines announcing their expansion plans after the bidding process and not before.
Ultimately, Councilman Delray Shelton made a motion for Boutique Airlines to be in a “third spot” on their recommendation to the DOT. That met with council approval, despite the fact that officials said the DOT looks heavily at the top two selections, and it this case, the top two recommended spots were for Advanced Air service options.
Past carriers who enjoyed the federal Essential Air Service contract include Scenic Airlines and Great Lakes Airlines.
Owner under fire
The head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, along with one of the organizers of the downtown Cruise Night, and a member of the City Council speaking from the dais, all called out a longtime downtown Merced business owner for allegedly harassing a street vendor last Saturday night.
The business owner under fire is Mike Siegel, who has operated the Cigar Monkey shop on Canal Street for 17 years.
Over this time, the outspoken business owner has been no stranger to discussion about downtown issues — whether it be homelessness, available parking or street closures for events — at city-sponsored forums and comments on social media.
However, Siegel was not at the City Council meeting on Monday, though he was commenting on Facebook. Meanwhile, Chamber President Annissa Fragoso was at the meeting and during the public comment period she accused Siegel, who is white, of harassing a female Hispanic vendor with remarks about her not having proper permits. She also accused Siegel’s wife of displaying a middle finger to supporters of the vendor and making derogatory comments about her skin color.
During her comments, Fragoso gave three different versions of the vendor’s name, which apparently is either Dolores Amada, Dolores Amador, or Dolores Armada. She said the Hispanic Chamber is assisting the vendor and admitted she needed a permit that she wasn’t aware of.
“The chamber represents what’s good in the city and we are going to make sure she continues to receive positive experiences,” Fragoso said. “Ms. Amador had everything she needed to operate legally with the exception of one permit which she was unaware of. She is licensed to be here as of today, and you can best believe she will be at all future city events making money as she pleases.”
Fragoso also read an email from an apparent eyewitness, Shawn Hess, who said Siegel was with “a group of five people who verbally harassed the vendor for a couple of hours.”
The accusations prompted Merced City Council member Fernando Echevarria to speak on the issue.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “The next time I see somewhat out there smoking [referring to the Cigar Monkey shop], I’m going to say ‘I don’t like your second hand smoke. And go find another place to be.’ Because I’ve complained about this for a long time. His attitude. His meanness. Thank you for that information Annissa.”
Just last year, Echevarria was censured by his colleagues after he had verbal clashes with members of the public during an event to discuss police brutality, and then followed that up with disturbing comments online.
Later on at Monday night’s meeting, Echevarria blurted out: “I’m going to tell you right now on television that I don’t like second-hand smoke and I think it’s a heck of a lot more dangerous than unlicensed fruit vendors.”
This is the second street vendor controversy that has been linked to the Merced City Council in a month’s time. In April, Councilwoman Bertha Perez made the news after she showed up at an Atwater City Council meeting to criticize Mayor Paul Crieghton for an interaction he had with a man selling fruit in downtown Atwater. Perez used an obscenity when referring to Mayor Creighton on Facebook, and then did it again during an interview with a Fresno newspaper.
Cigar Monkey has featured a smoking lounge inside the store for years, and some clients can occasionally be seen smoking just outside the shop’s doors. A few bars in the downtown area also have outdoor sections that have allowed patrons to smoke in. And of course, there’s no shortage of smoke shops along Main Street, and there’s two cannabis dispensaries in the downtown that sell products smokers enjoy.
To get Siegel’s side of what happened on Saturday, the Times went to his cigar shop and asked about it. Siegel gave the following statement: “Due to shifting conditions as this story develops, we must decline making any comment at this time — beyond stating that there are details that many are not aware of, and there’s absolutely an alternative story.”
The Times, however, did obtain a Facebook comment stream under the group name “Downtown Merced” and in it, Siegel posted a description of what happened on Saturday night from his viewpoint:
“And here we go,” he wrote. “The City Council puts the downtown through this conversion to gain extra customer parking … The first full weekend after the changeover … half a block is taken up by an out-of-town food vendor parking up on the sidewalk for an event. To top it off, this was right across the street from two of the restaurants that the City Council has been trying so hard to drum up support for. So much for helping our local restaurants recover …
“After taking a few pictures, I was approached by the vendor who screamed at me, cursed at me and threatened me. When asked, the vendor insisted that they had a license to operate but refused to offer up a use permit or even a site of their license. When asked, they refused to identify who invited them in Downtown Merced.”
In his comments, Siegel apparently did not realize a “Cruise Night” was going on. The photo he posted showed what looked to be like a “churros” stand with an accompanying trailer.
“Merced Cruise Night” brings car fans to Main Street for cruising and a street car show. The street is not closed for the event, so the city does not post any announcements like they do for some special events. It’s not clear what permitting, if any, is needed to put on the event. Photos on the MercedCruiseNight social media site showed many hot rods on Saturday night parked in the new diagonal parking spaces on Main Street for people to walk up and take a look at. A poster on the site said there are more monthly events coming in June, July, August and September.
David Padilla, one of the organizers of the event, spoke up at the council meeting.
“This man [Siegel] is a thorn in everybody’s side,” he said. “Something has to be done to make them [vendors] feel safe and welcome because they are not a threat. People who want to sit down, they will go to a restaurant. Sometimes people want a grab a hot dog or a taco and go for a walk … That man really needs to be told something or something needs to be done. It started with her because she was the first one that was down there, but we don’t want it to continue.”
Meanwhile Monday, Council member Jesse Ornales successfully moved his colleagues and city staff to develop a resolution stating that Merced is a welcome place for street vendors — specifically those individuals who roam neighborhoods with small push carts and sell things like ice cream and tamales.
In addition, Ornales successfully petitioned for an update of city ordinances regarding street vendors, and city support for the creation of a “Street Vendor Association,” perhaps through the organization of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Ornales said he wanted to include food trucks in his motion and resolution but intentionally left that out due to possible pushback from members of the downtown business community.
“The downtown area isn’t inclusive to the communities of color,” he stated during the meeting. “When someone who looks like me walks down the street, I don’t look like a potential customer. I look like a potential suspect. … I have an office at Bob Hart Square. … My staff, and the youth they serve, are treated as suspects.”
City Manager Stephanie Dietz said a city ordinance update is due anyway to comply with a new state law, SB946.
According to the website PublicCouncil.org: “The purpose of SB 946 is to legalize and decriminalize sidewalk vending across the state. Specifically, the bill establishes parameters for local regulation of sidewalk vending and prohibits local authorities from imposing criminal penalties on sidewalk vendors. …
“SB 946 defines “sidewalk vendor” as a person who sells food or merchandise from a pushcart, stand, display, pedal-driven cart, wagon, showcase, rack or other nonmotorized conveyance, or from one’s person, on a public sidewalk or other pedestrian path. A sidewalk vendor can be “a roaming sidewalk vendor,” which is defined as moving from place to place and stopping only to complete a transaction, or “a stationary vendor,” which is defined as vending from a fixed location. …
“SB 946 does not alter local, state, or federal laws regarding the accessibility of public right of ways, the sale of counterfeit or dangerous goods, or food safety laws. However, a local authority may not regulate sidewalk vending except in accordance with SB 946. If a local authority does not adopt a program to regulate sidewalk vending that complies with the statute, the local authority may not cite, fine, or prosecute a sidewalk vendor for a violation of any rule or regulation that is inconsistent with the statute.
“A local authority (including charter cities):
- May only regulate sidewalk vending in a manner consistent with SB 946. …
- Cannot require a sidewalk vendor to operate within specific parts of the public right-of-way, except when the restriction is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns. This provision does not prohibit a local authority from granting a permit to vend in a specific location upon the request of a vendor applicant;
- Cannot prohibit a sidewalk vendor from selling food or merchandise in a park owned or operated by the local authority, except the local authority may prohibit stationary sidewalk vendors from vending in a park if there is an existing agreement for concessions that exclusively permits the sale of food or merchandise by the concessionaire. A local authority may adopt additional requirements regulating the time, place, and manner of sidewalk vending in parks if the requirements are: necessary to ensure the public’s use and enjoyment of natural resources and recreational opportunities; or necessary to prevent an undue concentration of commercial activity that unreasonably interferes with the scenic and natural character of the park;
- Cannot require a sidewalk vendor to obtain the consent or approval of any nongovernmental entity or individual, such as a nearby business, before the vendor can sell food or merchandise;
- Cannot restrict sidewalk vendors to designated neighborhoods or areas, except when the restriction is directly related to objective health, safety or welfare concerns. However, a local authority may prohibit stationary sidewalk vendors in areas zoned exclusively residential where no commercial activity is permitted, but a local authority cannot prohibit roaming sidewalk vendors in such areas; and
- Cannot restrict the overall number of sidewalk vendors permitted to operate within the jurisdiction, unless the restriction is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.
- SB 946 enables a local authority to impose time, place, and manner restrictions on sidewalk vending.
“Under SB 946, local authorities may impose time, place, and manner restrictions on sidewalk vending. The local authority must ensure that the existing or proposed time, place, and manner restrictions are directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns. Perceived community animus or economic competition does not constitute an objective health, safety, or welfare concern. Examples of time, place, and manner restrictions include but are not limited to:
- Limitations on hours of operation that are not unduly restrictive;
- Requirements to maintain sanitary conditions;
- Requirements necessary to ensure compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability access standards;
- Requirements to obtain a permit or valid business license, possess a seller’s permit from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, or obtain additional licenses from other state or local agencies to the extent required by law; and/or
- Requirements that a sidewalk vendor submit information on his or her operations.
- SB 946 allows, but does not require, a local sidewalk vending permitting program. (When issuing a local sidewalk vending permit, the local authority must accept a California driver’s license or identification number, an individual taxpayer identification number, or a municipal identification number in lieu of a social security number. The number collected is confidential and cannot be made available to the public for inspection.)
- SB 946 prohibits criminal penalties but allows administrative fines for sidewalk vending violations that are inconsistent with SB946.
For now, it’s not clear if an update of the city ordinance would allow for dozens of “mobile vendors” to line the sidewalks along Main Street for long periods of time.
Dietz said staff will bring back a draft resolution and ordinance update at the first meeting in August.
2021-22 Fiscal Budget
Last but not least, City Manager Stephanie Dietz, who was hired on last year, presented her first-ever Recommended Budget plan to the City Council for review on Monday night.
We’re out of time to go on about the budget in this week’s Times issue. Stay tuned for more.
Readers are encouraged to check out the budget for themselves. It’s posted on the city’s website: cityofmerced.org. Just go to the “Departments” link and then look for “City Budget.”
The public will have a chance to weigh in on budget issues at upcoming regular City Council meetings. The budget is normally approved by leaders during the last meeting of June. City Council meetings are held the first and third Monday of the month, except when there is a holiday and then they meet the following day.