Steamed

Downtown hot dog vendors say they're getting a raw deal

Maricopa County bureaucrats again are dogging the handful of folks who make a living by selling wieners around the downtown Phoenix courthouse.

Ed "The Hot Dogger" Haramina and his food-cart competitors recently learned that the county has canceled the vendors' two-year contracts at the four sites, even though more than six months remain on the original contracts.

County officials say they hope to collect hundreds of dollars more in rent each month than Haramina and others are paying now. The county invoked a rarely used clause that allows it to cancel contracts with 60 days' notice simply "for convenience."

"Are we in America or what?" an angry Haramina asked a county procurement consultant last week during a meeting called to discuss the next step with potential new bidders. "I sign a contract in good faith, and now I have been deceived. This makes a mockery of the contract."

"This is not open to discussion," the consultant, Steve Dahle, replied tersely, suggesting that Haramina set an appointment to discuss why the county had decided to invoke the boilerplate "convenience" clause and terminate the first contract.

"That means they don't have to give you a reason," Haramina's wife, Mitzi, chimed in.

The new minimum bid to operate at Haramina's site on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Jefferson Street will be $400 a month. That represents an increase of 166 percent over the approximately $150 a month ($30 rent, plus two-and-a-half percent of the gross revenue) that "The Hot Dogger" has been paying since his contract began in November 2000.

The 59-year-old Haramina has been a fixture outside the courthouse since 1976. Until 2000, he set up shop each weekday at the busy intersection of First Avenue and Jefferson. But bureaucratic snafus with county court officials drove him away for several months.

That year, Maricopa County officials for the first time asked mobile vendors to submit bids for the right to operate on the four corners of the Superior Court complex. That bid process came shortly after a new City of Phoenix law limited the number of vendors operating at a given intersection.

Eddie Haramina was the only vendor to file a bid at his present location, which accounts for his low rent there. "No one wanted that corner," he says, proudly, "and I got a good deal -- kind of like when you're the only one to bid on a car or a house. But I turned it into something and reported my income honestly every month with copies of my tax returns."

The original contract had little about how the vendors had to operate, other than to follow the county's health codes and to remain open for business for four hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) on weekdays.

Karen Truesdale, an administrator with the county, tried to explain why it was canceling the contracts, in a letter to Haramina last November 5.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult and time-consuming to administratively monitor this contract," Truesdale wrote. "As such, the County is requiring the payment fees to be changed from flat monthly rental fees plus a percentage of monthly revenue to flat monthly rental fees only. This change will bring administrative monitoring to a minimum."

But the new contract, for which bids are scheduled to be opened March 12, includes several new elements that call for more -- not less -- monitoring by county employees.

Those include provisions relating to equipment, health inspection scores, excessive noise and trash, among other things. "The County will have in place a THREE STRIKES AND YOUR [sic] OUT disciplinary program," the contract says.

The county also considered prohibiting vendors from attracting attention to their businesses by playing radios or by "yelling or shouting, hooting, whistling, and singing."

"The businesses will be monitored on a daily basis," the county's Steve Varsack said at last week's meeting. "These specifications are based on what the county desires -- that is, for lack of a better word, the rule."

"Sometimes I like to sing," Haramina responded. "Sometimes I like to whistle. And I like to listen to my music."

"He wouldn't have any business at all if he sang too much," Mitzi Haramina added.

"There's gonna be flexibility there," Varsack replied. "If you want to sing at a reasonable level, that's acceptable."

Later, the county agreed to allow the vendors to listen to their radios, whistle or sing, as long as it's not being done to attract business.

After the meeting, Steve Dahle said he doesn't recall the last time the county invoked the 60-day clause that allows valid contracts to be canceled.

"We're just going to see how the marketplace reacts to this," Dahle said. "We may have to come back if no one bids on this and say we were wrong."

If that happens, Varsack added, there's a possibility no vendors will be allowed to sell their hot dogs around the courthouse.

"The public taxpayer is who we work for," he said.

Back at his stand after the two-hour meeting, Haramina served a customer his famous "Taco Dog" -- a hot dog wrapped with all the fixin's in a heated flour tortilla -- and contemplated his future. The native of Argentina says he still loves his job, despite the 14-hour days, impossibly long summers, and chilly winter mornings.

But, Haramina adds ruefully, the bureaucrats are wearing him out.

"I have the money to pay what they're asking, but I'm not sure that I want to," he said. "I think that what I do here is a kind of a public service. I make good food, make a lot of friends, and make a few bucks doing it. Those people over there must have too much time on their hands, coming up with all this crap."

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