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The Problem Of Problem Delis

Though she isn’t only the one with a harrowing story, Marilyn Rodgers is one who, as a pillar of her community, has become a lightning rod for hate. Rodgers is an advocate for legislation that will make the renewal of a delicatessen license harder for problem delis. She took on this task because of a problem deli in her neighbored, the West Side Market. As a result of her efforts, over the last three years Rodgers has been attacked in a variety of forms. In the picture is the deli Rodgers has sought to close. So is a picture of her truck, which she believes was damaged by people connected to the market.
Last Thursday, a special meeting was held to address concerns about the delis. Masten council member, Demone Smith, called the meeting to discuss a possible revision to current legislation in the hopes of making it harder for delis to obtain a license renewal. According to Smith, “We want to make it easier to get rid of some of those bad apple stores. We get the complaints of gun dealing [and drugs]. We get the whole variety.”
Present at the meeting were a number of city officials, including Common Council members David Rivera and Michael LoCurto, as well as Common Council President David Franczyk. Patrick Sole, supervisor of licenses; Vince Ferraraccio, a building inspector; and the commissioner of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services, Richard Tobe.
The meeting was held to gauge the potential of a number of different options to handle the deli situation and was hashed out between the Common Council members and the Department of Permit and Inspection Services. Input from Marilyn Rodgers, Catherine Fabozzi, and Tommy Birtha, all of whom have faced harassment from their local delis, were entered for the record to show how serious of an issue this problem is.
For now, no immediate change of legislation was made. Currently, the Common Council has to approve any new licenses. Smith wanted to make it so that the Common Council also has to approve every deli license renewal. However, with 339 delis to be renewed in April of this year, the task would be too overwhelming to go through each deli individually. Coming up with an additional step or a way of singling out problem delis became the main issue, but as Tobe was quick to remind everyone present, “How do we do it legally, whatever we do? I want to get to the point where when we do these things, we win.”
Tobe spoke much to the area of due process – something every citizen is guaranteed by law. Singling out problem delis is fine, but the owners still have the right to have their case heard and an appeals process. Tobe also cited his recent efforts of creating a new license renewal process with Sole, including getting better reports from the police, more input from neighbors and the Common Council, and a possible hearing, giving the owner due process, while giving neighbors of the deli a chance to vocalize their concerns.
Smith liked that idea, however, he was very adamant about keeping the Common Council involved. The Council received a packet of the delis whose licenses are up for renewal in February according to Tobe. That was their opportunity to flag problem delis they may have received calls about from the people living in their district. However, Smith is interested in creating a possible two-step renewal process. Problem delis would be flagged and would have to receive renewal by Tobe and his department, and then move to the Common Council to be renewed there as well.
Before any action is taken, everything must be clearly outlined and defined to protect the city, as well as the owners of the delis, from lawsuits stating there was a violation of due process. That being the case, the meeting ended very uncertainly. The renewals for April will be delayed 30 days while the Common Council and Smith decide what best course of action to take–and so that legislation can be modified. Also, it will give the Council time to review the list of 339 delis more closely and designate those that are a problem.
It is a lot of red tape, but the problem is very serious. Rodgers lives in an area with eight other delis and a Tops Market in a three-block radius of her home. She has witnessed fights, and the serving of alcohol to people who are already too intoxicated along with personal threats to her and her neighbors. Rodgers says there is a lack of action because, “There are people who won’t call the police, due to fear of retribution. It’s intimidation and threats.”
In a letter written for the meeting and given to members of the Common Council, Rodgers said, “The city owes it to the community-builders and citizens to protect and serve as a good steward, rather than finding the quick and easy way out.”
This sentiment was echoed by Birtha at the meeting, who also said, “My life has actually been threatened on numerous occasions.”
Fabozzi nodded in understanding. Fabozzi once had all of the lug nuts loosened on her vehicle, but she luckily noticed in time before getting onto the highway. Fabozzi says, “It’s been intolerable. City hall has been more of a problem than the hookers [at the deli].”
Even Council President Franczyk spoke up to note the major problems with delis, stating, “How come you never hear about this at a Wilson Farms? So what you have at the very least is the significant lowering of standards in the way these businesses are run. They’re lowlifes. They disrespect the neighborhood.”
In strengthening the license renewal process against problem delis, there are a number of concerns, including evidence needed to shut them down. Greg Heeb, an assistant to the Corporation Council, said, “The single biggest problem we have is the quality of evidence. I, personally, like to prosecute these things and it really makes a difference to have a solid base of evidence.”
It is the same wall that Birtha, Fabozzi, and Rodgers have come up against. Covert attacks and hearsay are hard to get a conviction on and all three, at one point or another during the meeting, said the police had not been able to help too much. To Rodgers, the key to beating the problem delis is to simply take action. “Once conditions are placed on a license, the city has to enforce those conditions.”
The problem with delis has been a huge issue for the last decade. There was even a deli task force started years ago to attempt to deal with the delis. Franczyk and Ferraraccio were both members of that team, and Franczyk said, “After ten years, we still don’t have a handle on it.”
Hopefully, the changes that will be made to the current process of license renewal will be a significant boost to the communities facing problems from local delis. Rodgers warned, “We’re not getting the word out that things of this nature are in process.” Even for the meeting, Rodgers said, “They didn’t give us a heck of a lot of time [to prepare for it].”
The meeting ended with some starter plans to change the process and a delay of 30 days before licenses renewals are issued in an effort to give the Common Council time to work with the Department of Permit and Inspection Services on a new or modified process. Other than taking the deli to task through the city processes, Rodgers has no contact with the deli, its owners, or people who shop there. Rodgers wants to see it closed and says, “I will not step foot in the West Side Market.”
As Rodgers stated in a letter: What we need to do is certainly cast a wide net to assure all areas of our city are covered by the same laws and ordinances. Not just for areas that are considered better than others.

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