From the moment Springfield Republican reporter Stephanie Barry christened it "Wienergate," the battle between hot dog vendor John Verducci and the Sarno administration has proved irresistible to punsters and word-play aficionados across the city, with the jokes ranging from the corny to the blue (most in the latter category dependent on the phallic nature of the offending food).
So let's give the last word on the subject (and please, god, let it be the last word) to City Councilor Tim Rooke, who yesterday sent an email to a group of local reporters with this doozy of a headline: "Rooke Relishes Roll in Resolving Dom Dog War."
In it, Rooke outlined his idea for solving the stand-off between Sarno and Verducci, which erupted when the Springfield Parking Authority, acting at the mayor's behest, evicted Verducci and his hot dog cart from the parking spot on Worthington Street where he caters to the late-night bar crowd. Verducci accused Sarno of targeting him as a favor to the owners of a new restaurant in the area, Izzo's, one of whose owners happens to be the mayor's cousin. (The vendor also made an intriguing reference at a City Council meeting to some unresolved high-school issues between himself, Sarno and the cousin, Patsy Izzo.) Sarno insisted the move—which affected other street vendors as well—had nothing to do with his cousin. Rather, he said, it was an attempt to be fair to all business-owners in the area, who pay thousands in property taxes while the vendors just need enough quarters to feed the meter at the parking spot where they set up shop.
Last week, the City Council voted to allow existing vendors to stay in business while the city takes the time to rewrite existing ordinances that apply to vendors, to ensure equity. As Rooke noted, the current ordinances are outdated, and were written decades ago to apply to mobile vendors with pushcarts.
"Today we have $30,000 vehicles converted to sell sausage, steak tips and hot dogs," he said.
Rooke proposes using Boston's street vendor ordinance as a model. That law, he says, allows vendors on sidewalks or other public spaces, but not in parking spaces—a change that would eliminate the tussle over vendors squatting in paid parking spots. The Boston law also requires vendors to have the okay of the owner of the property where they set up, as well as occupant of the adjacent building's first floor (which would allow, for instance, a restaurant to block a vendor from setting up a competitive business right outside its door). In addition, the Boston law bans vendors from setting up outside a bar or concert venue, to prevent patrons from loitering outside bars and clubs after closing (a prime time for street fights on Worthington Street). Finally, the vendors have to be inspected by the police, fire and health departments. In Boston, vendors pay a fee based on the size of their operation: $15 per square foot.
Rooke said the SPA and Police Commissioner William Fitchet have already agreed to his plan. He expects the council to have a draft of a new ordinance within 30 days.
The proposed new law would be a nice victory for street vendors (or at least those willing to get the proper licenses and otherwise follow the city's requirements). The secondary winners are various Sarno critics, for whom the protracted battle has served as an opportunity to embarrass and otherwise beat up on the mayor. Leading that charge was City Councilor Bud Williams, Sarno's rival in this year's mayor's race (ably assisted by Councilor Jimmy Ferrera and state Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, a one-time Sarno supporter).
Indeed, it hasn't been a politically happy week for Sarno, who, in the midst of the over-the-top hot dog drama, found himself the target of another uncomfortable accusation: A lawsuit filed against the city by the owners of the Skyplex nightclub, in protest of Sarno's refusal to grant them entertainment licenses to hold "18-plus nights" at the club, includes the assertion that Sarno "had expressed dissatisfaction with the personal political support [the nightclub's owners] gave to him."
Skyplex's owners, Mike Barrasso and Steven Stein, are represented by attorney Tom Rooke, the brother of Tim Rooke, one of Sarno's most vocal critics on the council. It would be overly simplistic, however, to say that the Rooke brothers are carrying one another's water. Tom Rooke, after all, had plenty of battles with Sarno's predecessor, Charlie Ryan, on behalf of his various bar-owning clients. Tim Rooke, meanwhile, was a strong Ryan supporter.