Update, 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 21: DCRA’s Helder Gil says, “The IT guys looked behind the couches and in the nooks and crannies, and there are no missing e-mails. What we got is what was sent to us.”
Last week, following news reports that noted the District’s proposed vending regulations would severely limit food trucks in the Central Business District, Washingtonians had one last chance to register their thoughts on the rules. They barely said a peep: Only about 200 people, businesses and groups submitted comments before the Nov. 13 deadline.
In the bitter battle over food trucks in the District, Washingtonians have apparently lost their appetite for the regulatory fight, which just earlier this year generated more than 3,000 public comments.
Or have they?
According to the DC Food Truck Association, more than 1,000 letters in support of these gourmet lunchwagons never reached Helder Gil, legislative affairs specialist for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, who was charged with collecting public comments. These 1,000-plus comments were sent via the DCFTA’s automated letter-writing site, RulesThatWork.org, says Che Ruddell-Tabisola, the group’s executive director.
Ruddell-Tabisola and the association were looking into the situation late Monday — not that it would make much difference if the problem turned out to be on the sender’s end. Gil told All We Can Eat that any comments submitted after the deadline of 5 p.m. Nov. 13, would not become part of the official record. As of the deadline, DCRA had received only 43 comments from RulesThatWork.org.
“Absolutely it concerns me that they are not part of the public comments,” Ruddell-Tabisola said. “If they’re not there, we’ll be absolutely sure the [Mayor Vincent Gray] administration is. . . fully aware that these individuals share” our positions.
No one has suggested that sabotage, or any such drama, is responsible for the missing pro-truck comments. But given that an initial review of the RulesThatWork site found no immediate problems, Ruddell-Tabisola said today that he suspects the issue may lie with DCRA’s e-mail systems.
“Because DCRA was receiving e-mails at one point and then apparently stopped, it leads me to wonder if there there was [a] technical change on their end, such as some kind of system update, security update, a change in a spam filter or firewall setting, etc.,” Ruddell-Tabisola e-mailed All We Can Eat today.
“It looks like the last day they posted comments from RulesThatWork.org was Nov. 10, so I’m wondering if there was a change then,” the executive director added.
If Ruddell-Tabisola’s theory proves correct, it could potentially mean that other comments never made it to Gil’s inbox as well, including those who favor a tighter regulatory lease on food trucks. But the legislative affairs specialist doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“I’ve talked with our IT guys,” Gil said. “They say, no, they are not aware of any issues.” The city’s IT team, however, was still going to check another junk mail folder to see if any comments were stranded there, Gil added.
“Everything we got, we posted,” the DCRA official said. “That’s literally all I can say.”
Gil is “quite confident” that all substantive comments were registered and posted on the DCRA’s Web site. And yet during two previous rounds of proposed vending regulations, the public responded in much higher numbers: In 2010, more than 2,400 comments were sent to DCRA; earlier this year, the agency collected 3,500 comments for the proposed regs that were published in January.
Part of the decline can be traced to DCFTA itself, which focused on its own substantive comments this time around. The group submitted an exhaustive, 20-page response to the published regulations, not only outlining flaws with the proposed rules but also offering suggestions on how to fix them.
The association focused on its own response after hearing from some District officials, who said that computer-generated letters don’t sway anyone inside the Wilson Building, no matter how many such comments are received. What’s more, Ruddell-Tabisola said the food truck association had to wait 10 days before meeting with the District Department of Transportation to clarify some of the language in the proposed regs. This delayed the group’s ability to analyze the rules and conduct the necessary research.
DCFTA also had to deal with a natural disaster late last month, when Superstorm Sandy slowly inched its way to the East Coast, then ripped through New York and New Jersey, leaving thousands scrambling to put their lives back together. DCFTA and some of its 50-plus members, Ruddell-Tabisola noted, devoted time and energy toward assisting their counterpart in the Big Apple, the New York City Food Truck Association. All these issues, Ruddell-Tabisola said, left little time to mobilize the association's many customers and supporters.
“From my point of view, we essentially generated about 1,000 public comments in five days’ time,” said the executive director, who is also the co-owner of the BBQ Bus.
If the city’s IT team finds those 1,000 comments in a junk folder somewhere, and if those comments were indeed sent before the deadline, DCRA would accept them and put them on the Web site, Gil said.
The District is in the process of reviewing all the comments, Gil added. If the input forces the District to substantially revise the proposed regulations, the city would then have to republish the rules and go through another round of public comments.
The city does not yet have a timeframe for when it will complete the review, Gil said.