After Havre City Council approved a ballot measure to approve a routine local government study Monday evening, members of the council's Streets and Sidewalks Committee discussed an ongoing issue surrounding food vendors on First Street, U.S. Highway 2 when it runs through Havre, brought up by Montana Department of Transportation that maintains the street.
Guard Dogs owner Scott Adams, the vendor around whom the issue has arisen, addressed members of the council, saying he sells hot dogs outside the Palace Bar and as far as he was able to tell was doing so legally, an opinion shared by Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich and Montana Highway Patrol officers who told him he was following the law.
Adams said he's in front of the Palace Bar a couple nights a week selling food to bargoers and he was hoping the council would approve some kind of ordinance.
"I just want to sell hot dogs," Adams said.
MDT Havre Area Maintenance Chief Jody Bachini said the department's issue is that the state right of way extends from the centerline of the street to the storefronts on that section of road and they do not give permits to food vendors for fear of the state incurring liability should an injury occur.
Bachini said Adams would have to, and has, applied for an encroachment to do business in that area, but the department would not approve it, nor have they approved any encroachments for food vendors anywhere in the state that she is aware of.
This case is particularly complicated as U.S. Highway 2 is a federal highway and they are unlikely to approve something like this even if Montana DOT did, she said.
There is, however, a workaround, she said, in that municipalities can draft ordinances of their own to specifically regulate food vendors on streets like U.S. 2, which takes it out of their hands entirely.
She said they love seeing food vendors safely doing business in those areas, and indeed Bozeman, and many other municipalities, have drafted ordinances that seem to be very effective.
But, Bachini said, at this time, it is the opinion of the department's legal team that they should not be approving these encroachments.
She recommended that the council collaborate with the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce on crafting the ordinance, just to make sure that they don't end up in situations where, for example, food vendors end up parking outside of restaurants and cannibalize business.
Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich was at the meeting and said, as far as he can tell, Adams is following the law, operating out of a small trailer that is legally parked and not obstructing anything, so he doesn't really see an issue.
He said based on his reading of Montana code, an encroachment wouldn't apply to mobile food vendors anyway, nor to the pedestrians gathered around them, so he's not sure if any ordinance the city crafts would actually apply.
Havre Mayor Doug Kaercher, who attended the meeting as well, said new legislation says that vendors licensed by the state cannot also be licensed by the city, and he's not sure they should make an ordinance that could potentially make the city liable for problems if they aren't benefiting from it.
After much discussion, committee member Josh Gomez said he thinks they should send the matter to the city's legal department to get their opinion, and get in touch with DOT's legal department and ask them directly about the matter.
He said he understands that Adams wants to resume normal business operations as soon as possible, but this issue is legally complex enough that they need to consult with legal experts.
Havre resident Perry Atchison said while this is being worked out, the city could approve Adams to operate in the alley behind the Palace.
Havre Public Works Director Trevor Mork said that could cause issues with fire safety and safe egress for the bar, but it is something they could consider at least.
During the meeting, council member Wade Bitz said he wanted the committee to also consider putting a four-way stop at the intersection of Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue, which is right next to St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic School, Lincoln-McKinley Primary School and Pepin Park.
He said the area has seen some accidents and it seems like a dangerous location for an uncontrolled intersection.
Mork said all the intersections around those schools are currently being studied to potentially inform decisions on whether to put signs there, so that process has already begun.
During the Havre City Council meeting that preceded the committee meeting, the council approved a measure to go on this year's primary ballot to initiate a local government study.
Kaercher said the city has to consider doing one every 10 years, but they need a majority vote from the public to approve it.
Atchison, who was part of the last study, said it is incredibly valuable and allows a group of community members to examine the operation of local government, find potential inefficiencies and make sure everyone is fairly represented.
The measure was approved unanimously.
Kaercher said if the measure is approved on the primary ballot, then people can vote to approve the study's members on the general election ballot.
He also said the Montana State University Local Government Center would be providing education to the community on the study and what's involved in advance of the vote.