A Pinellas County Court judge ruled in favor of the City of Gulfport in a case involving a mobile food vendor’s violations of a city ordinance related to events and outdoor food sales in the waterfront area.
The city cited Gulfport resident Jesse Lee, 38, for twice setting up a mobile ice cream cart at the Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market in 2020 without the necessary city permits. Lee challenged the city’s ordinance, his tickets, and how the rules are enforced during a trial, Dec. 16 in Clearwater.
He lost, but said after the non-jury trial that he plans to appeal the ruling by Pinellas County Court Judge John Carballo.
Lee faces a $205 fine for violating Gulfport ordinance governing outdoor sales in the city’s Waterfront Redevelopment District, according to court records. The Gulfport measure requires special permits for organizers and vendors at outdoor events in the waterfront and beach area.
Lee was officially not part of the Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market on Beach Boulevard South, organized by the Gulfport Merchants Chamber of Commerce, and the city cited him for setting up shop during the weekly event, once in October and again in November of 2020.
He served as his own attorney during the approximately two-hour trial.
The Dec. 16 trial featured testimony from Gulfport Police, Gulfport City Manager James O’Reilly, Community Development Director Fred Metcalf, and Barbara Banno, president of the Gulfport Merchants Chamber of Commerce (GMC) and owner of Stella’s restaurant.
Gulfport lifted citywide restrictions on food trucks in August 2020 to abide by state laws passed that bar local hindrances to mobile food trucks. Cities can, however, regulate food trucks and mobile carts via zoning rules, such as the ones used in the waterfront area. That includes requiring permits and insurance coverage from those putting on events in specially designated areas or on public property.
Lee argued the city singled him out for the citations, that the language of the ordinance allowed him to operate adjacent to the sanctioned event, and that his efforts to obtain local approvals were rebuffed.
“I was trying to operate my business,” said Lee, adding that he had necessary state paperwork for his ice cream cart.
Banno — who contacted the city to report Lee during the 2020 incidents — said the GMC takes out a $1 million insurance policy with $8,000 premiums to host the weekly events. She said Lee was not part of the approved list of vendors for the 2020 events where he was cited.
“He has never applied,” Banno said.
Lee countered that he tried to apply for local approvals and inclusions in events. He feels mistreated by the city.
“I’m the only one ever being given a ticket,” said Lee referring to other mobile food business and vendors he said might have violated the Gulfport rules.
Gulfport Police Officer J. Ken McIntyre, who was on the scene of Lee’s 2020 ordinance violations, said during the trial he did not see Lee make any sales and that he had at one point recommended recanting the tickets in the case. McIntrye said during the trial Lee said in previous conversations he feels mistreated because he is Hispanic and gay.
There was no additional testimony brought forward on that front during the trial.
Justin Shea, cultural facilities and events supervisor for the city, said during the trial he has tried to work with Lee on the permitting issue.
“I did everything I could to help Mr. Lee,” Shea said during questioning.
Carbollo said throughout the one-day trial that he was not interested in Lee’s frustrations with the city’s treatment of him and his food business, but instead focused on whether the city proved its case in terms of the violations.
Gulfport City Attorney Andrew Salzman and Metcalf said despite the lifting of broader food truck restrictions there are still rules for mobile food sales in the waterfront area.
“It would have to be part of an approved special event,” Metcalf said during the trial.
Salzman said Lee violated the ordinance. The judge agreed.
The city welcomed the judge’s ruling.
“The city is appreciative of the court’s finding in support of the integrity of the city’s zoning code and the city council’s special event approval and/or criteria process. The city’s attorney, Mr. Salzman, did an excellent job in defense of the city’s code of ordinances,” O’Reilly said.
Lee has 30 days to appeal to the ruling. He also faces a Jan. 31 hearing related to another case involving a July 2021 incident where he tossed a CD that struck a Gulfport police officer.
Police charged Lee with battery on a law enforcement officer over that incident outside city hall. Lee and his counsel in that case are asking for the court for pre-trial intervention (PTI) which offers an alternative path of adjudication of the case.
Prosecutors, police and the judge in that case must all agree to a PTI path.