New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has vetoed a City Council ordinance that would have created a one-year pilot program easing restrictions on food trucks. The Council passed the ordinance last month, following hours of debate and nearly a year of negotiation.

The veto came as a surprise to council President Stacy Head, the ordinance’s sponsor. She said her office has been in frequent contact with Landrieu since January, when Head first introduced a food-truck overhaul bill, but Landrieu did not offer any concrete objections until this week, two weeks after the City Council approved the final version in a 6-1 vote.

“We have been sending emails to the administration,” Head said. “We haven’t heard back.”

In formally rejecting the ordinance, Landrieu said it may violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. He added that he supports the effort to update the law regarding food trucks and other itinerant vendors.

“Accordingly, I have directed my staff to work with the Council to immediately address this issue and develop changes which will result in mobile food vending laws which are legal, fair, enforceable and best serve the industry and the people of New Orleans,” Landrieu wrote.

Head’s office staff said Landrieu wants food trucks banned in all residential parking zones, not just in front of residential properties, as the bill now requires. Head’s staff said the administration is concerned that other itinerant vendors not addressed under the pilot program could sue the city, arguing that lifting restrictions for only one class of vendors unfairly impacts the others, possibly violating the Equal Protection Clause.

Head said she contacted City Attorney Richard Cortizas who told her he never expressed such a concern to the mayor.

“The city attorney’s office had absolutely not told the mayor there was a need to change the law because of possible litigation,” Head said.

Head’s office provided copies of email exchanges with Eric Granderson, the city’s director of local government affairs. On April 8, 10 days before the ordinance went before the Council, Head contacted Granderson: “I am following up again to try to discern the administration’s position on this ordinance,” she wrote.

Granderson responded by writing that “there are some legal discussions we’ve had on this” and promising to provide details. Head claims she never heard back.

Granderson did not respond immediately to requests for comment following release of the mayor’s veto statement. Cortizas referred The Lens to Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni.

Food truck operator Rachel Billow, president of the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, an advocacy group, said she also hadn’t expected the veto, even though her group has been in regular contact with the city.

“To be honest, as soon as we won the vote in City Council, I assumed the coast was clear and we were good to go,” Billow said. “I eased up on the advocacy efforts. We hadn’t heard anything. So I sort of assumed we were all on the same page.”

The ordinance was intended to update what has been characterized by food truck advocates, including Head, as overly restrictive municipal rules. The current law, enacted in 1956,  limits the number of active food-truck permits to 100, making it difficult or impossible for new vendors to operate legally. Food trucks can’t operate more than 45 minutes at a stretch on any publicly owned property. And they are prohibited from operating at all within 600 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant or within the French Quarter and the Central Business District.

Head’s ordinance — a pilot program subject to review after a year — would open up 75 additional permits and lift the time limit for permitted trucks. The French Quarter and most of the CBD would remain off-limits, but food trucks would be permitted to operate  200 feet from restaurants.

The ordinance was passed over objections from the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Head’s original bill would have reduced the distance from restaurants to 100 feet, but Paul Rotner, president of the association’s New Orleans chapter, requested an increase to 300 in an April 8 letter addressed to Council members. Rotner and other restaurant association members reiterated the request at the April 18 meeting, and the regulation was amended to 200 feet as a compromise.

Another amendment by Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson added language mandating that food trucks secure written permission to access a public or commercial bathroom within 300 feet of a location where they’ve stopped to sell food. Clarkson, along with District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry, cited concerns from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals as a reason to include the bathroom regulation. Rotner had brought up the issue in a Feb. 28 letter to the City Council.

The ordinance will go back to the City Council at tomorrow’s regular meeting. The Council can override the veto with a two-thirds vote, or five members, voting in favor.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...