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California Group Protests Tobacco License Vote

EL CAJON, Calif. -- A trade group representing convenience store owners and local merchants is alleging the City Council violated the state's open-meeting law when it voted to impose a licensing fee on retailers who sell tobacco, reported the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In a letter sent to the city, an attorney for California Independent Grocers & Convenience Stores claims the council violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when it voted unanimously in May to adopt the licensing law. The Brown Act lays out how government bodies conduct the public's business.

The group, which represents more than 650 store owners in Southern California, most of them in San Diego County, maintains the council reached a decision in private, prior to hearing testimony on the issue. If that were true, it would be a violation of the Brown Act.

"When questioned prior to the vote, the response from council members and their staff was, 'Hey, it's a 5-0 vote,' " said Robert S. Whims, the trade group's lawyer.

City Attorney Morgan Foley said the group's allegations are false. "There is absolutely no basis for a claim that we violated the Brown Act," Foley said. The council will not reconsider its vote "because there was no violation" of the law, he added.

El Cajon is the first city in San Diego County to require merchants to obtain a license to sell tobacco. It costs $511 annually, and the revenue generated will be used to pay for police stings and the salary of a code enforcement officer who will issue and renew licenses.

Merchants caught selling tobacco to minors, or otherwise violating the city's tobacco ordinance, would face fines ranging from $100 to $500 and could lose their license. The ordinance took effect last month, but it is not clear when the city will begin enforcing it because it still must hire an officer.

Auday Arabo, president and CEO of the trade group, says it is unfair to punish all retailers instead of focusing on those who violated the law. He also contends the council rushed its decision and never consulted with local merchants, the way the cities of San Diego and La Mesa have done.

El Cajon has 30 days to reply to the group's letter, but if the city is unwilling to reconsider the ordinance, Arabo said the group would consider taking legal action. "We definitely work well with local and state government and don't like going around suing cities," he said. "This is a last resort for us."
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