Police enforcement of the city’s new rules to stop the illegal vending at Oahu beach parks started Sunday. It’s too early to know the long-term effect of the new rules, but so far the clampdown on the vendors seems to be working.

I drove out to Ehukai Beach Park and Waimea Bay on Sunday and Monday. The so-called First Amendment vendors usually there with tables piled high with T-shirts, drinks and snacks to sell to beachgoers were gone.

Community advocate Lisa Cates said Kailua Beach Park was also clear of the usual illegal peddlers both those days.

Visitors to Waimea Bay Beach Park didn’t encounter the usual vendors Sunday or Monday. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Cates says the new rules are a lot more specific about what’s allowed to be sold in public parks, but she remains wary.

“It is natural when people have been making a lot of money that they will always figure out a way to keep doing it,” she says.

The vendors operating as non-profit religious groups have been skirting city laws for decades, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from their sales of everything from T-shirts to rubber slippers to sodas and candy bars.

“It is basically just a scam,” Cates said last year.

Under the new rules, individuals or groups do not need permits to sell or collect donations that they are hand-carrying in Oahu city parks, but the items for sale must be political, religious, philosophical or ideological messages. That includes books, magazines, pamphlets, leaflets, handbills and cards.

If an individual or a group wants to use a portable table to distribute its printed materials, it must apply to the city for a permit.

Last year at Waimea Bay, vendor Madhumala Biswas, left, was selling merchandise. Denby Fawcett

They can no longer sell — as they did for years unchecked — “food, drink, coffee mugs, beverage containers, sun glasses, flags, patches, maps, jewelry, handicraft, decals, audio or video tapes, shirts, hats, ties, shorts, footwear or any other clothing article.”

Each violation calls for up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail, or both. In addition, the Department of Parks and Recreation has the right  “to seize and dispose of any merchandise being sold or distributed on park land in violation of these rules.”

City parks spokesman Nathan Serota says, “We have notified Honolulu Police Department about the rule changes and plan on working with them on enforcement, particularly concerning the line in the rules about the confiscation of merchandise. “

Peddling has always been illegal in city parks, but Parks and Recreation Director Michele Nekota said the former 20-year-old rules were vague and difficult to enforce.

“The new rules help clarify to the public what is allowed for sale or distribution at our city parks under the First Amendment,” Nekota says. “Mainly, that merchandise ranging from clothing and kitchenware to food and jewelry, is not allowed for sale.”

“It is natural when people have been making a lot of money that they will always figure out a way to keep doing it.” — Lisa Cates

The rule change came after an outcry from community activists and state Rep. Cynthia Thielen of Kailua, who watched the illegal vendors operate freely at Kailua Beach Park for years.

“They are just hawking goods to tourists. This is not the right way to use our parks,” Thielen told me last year.

The new rules went into effect Sept. 8 but vendors holding permits under the old rules for the month of September were allowed to keep selling until Sunday.

The illegal vending in Oahu parks began sometime after 1996 when the city created rules to allow carefully regulated free speech activities in certain parks. The intention was to clear vendors off the sidewalks of the Waikiki tourist district, where sidewalk T-shirt stands had proliferated.

Vendors with permits were allowed to distribute so-called “message bearing merchandise” in selected parks to freely express their views.

Some vendors have been competing directly with concessionaires who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell food and drink, among other items, at Hanauma Bay. Courtesy: Lisa Bishop

But a small group of individuals found ways to grab most of the First Amendment permits available from the city each month and use them to set up tables in the parks to sell T-shirts, rubber slippers, beach hats and food and drinks — items that could be easily found in any store and had nothing to do with the goals of their so-called nonprofits.

Most of some 15 permits have been held for years by three individuals: Dipak Sarkar, Hema Sarkar and Narayani Sarkar, all of whom are related by current or past marriages and all of whom are associated with Krishna groups. Many of their permits list the same address: 67-446 Puuiki St. in Waialua.

My emails to Dipak Sarkar and calls to his cell phone to get his response to the new rules have gone unanswered. I am curious to find out if he’s planning a legal appeal.

“The vendors will find a way to push the envelope as they have in the past. This will continue to allow commercialism in our public parks.” — Rep. Cynthia Thielen

Thielen says she is disappointed that the new rules still allow the vendors to sell, even though the sales are now limited to printed materials.

“The city did not have to continue to allow them to sell anything,” says Thielen. “I don’t see this as enough of an improvement. The vendors will find a way to push the envelope as they have in the past. This will continue to allow commercialism in our public parks.”

In an email response to Thielen’s concerns, Nekota had this to say: “Our rules were developed with national best practices in mind and effectively balance the constitutional rights of park users while also addressing concerns of commercial activity in our parks.”

Cates says, “All we can do it is wait to see if they figure out a loophole, which they have always done in the past.”

Lisa Bishop, of the Friends of Hanauma Bay, says she is confident the new rules will curtail illegal sales at Hanauma Bay.

“The Hanauma Bay First Amendment groups are not focused on distributing/selling literary materials or ephemera that the new rules allow — there is no money in that,” Bishop says. “By eliminating their profit motive and rent-free storefront, I expect them to disappear. “

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