Political Notebook: Permit
rules rile Castro tour operator
by Matthew S. Bajko
Kathy Amendola, the owner of the popular Cruisin' the Castro tours, has been on a quixotic quest the last four years seeking redress for an issue she sees as detrimental to her privately owned tour company: how San Francisco oversees tour guide operators.
"We are one of the few cities in the country that don't have enforced license laws," said Amendola, who bought her business in 2005 upon the retirement of its founder, Trevor Hailey, who died in 2007. "The city has not really created an easy process for tour guides to register, pay, and get going. So people avoid it and the city doesn't pursue it."
Due to Internet websites such as http://www.Vayable.com, which promotes guided tours in cities around the world, and the ease of creating a page on Facebook, it is relatively easy for an individual to promote their own walking, hiking, or bike tours. There are now hundreds of tours offered in San Francisco covering numerous neighborhoods and targeted to various interests, such as culinary tastes, history buffs, or nightlife interests.
"I am obviously frustrated," said Amendola. "All I would like to see is fair competition and the police following up on for-profit tour guides who don't have licenses."
Any company or individual that offers walking, bicycle, or bus tours for a profit in San Francisco is required to seek a permit from the city's police department in order to operate lawfully. The one-time permit fee for walking tour guides without a brick-and-mortar sales office is $523; for those with a location to buy tour tickets it is $650.
For a company with multiple tour guides, the fee increases $244 for each guide. Bicycle tour permits cost $618 and increase to $745 for those with a location to buy tickets.
"I have heard complaints about people operating tours and not having to get a permit. We are trying to get as many people in compliance as possible," said San Francisco Police Department Lieutenant Troy Dangerfield, who oversees the permit department.
Yet many operators are unaware of the requirements, and in 2011, the Board of Supervisors exempted nonprofit tour operators from having to seek permits. Of the 44 walking tour operators the SFPD has on file, 27 have permits. The rest may have gone out of business or qualify for the nonprofit exemption, said Dangerfield.
"We know a lot of companies out there don't have permits. We contact them and try to get them to come in," he said.
Regulating the tour operators, particularly those without a designated office, poses problems for the five permit officers he oversees, said Dangerfield. They have resorted to randomly showing up at the start of a tour to check on the guide's permit status.
"We will meet them and give them the paperwork to apply," he said. "Usually the person doing the tour is not the person owning the tour operation but is a hired tour guide."
Ryan Curtis, the owner of Roam Local who advertises a walking tour of the Castro and Mission districts on both Facebook and Vayable.com, received a call from the police several months ago about his permit status. Until then, he had been unaware of the need for one.
"I have just gotten a permit with the SFPD for a walking tour operator. The process has taken a bit longer because I needed to put them on my insurance and I also need to attend a permit hearing next week," Curtis told the Bay Area Reporter. "Before starting my tour company, I did not know that I needed to be registered with the SFPD."
Amendola has also been pushing to see the exemption for nonprofit tour guides is readdressed. In particular, Amendola has raised concerns about the proliferation of tours of the Castro conducted for free by San Francisco City Guides that directly compete with her paid tours.
"It not only affects the market share, it is very difficult to compete with free tours with huge advertising budgets," said Amendola.
SF City Guides was created by the city and its public library in 1978 and now consists of roughly 300 volunteer guides, said Executive Director Michael Cushing. Working with a budget of less than $200,000 a year, Cushing told the B.A.R. it would be financially difficult for the nonprofit to have to pay for permits.
"We would probably not be able to do these walks if we have to get permits," said Cushing, adding that the tours bring paying customers into business districts across the city. "Over 50,000 people took our walks last year."
He disputed the notion that the City Guides tours are in direct competition with for-profit tour operators. He added that he often directs people seeking tours for groups larger than eight people to professional guides.
"The ironic thing was Trevor was friends with City Guides and we got along rather well. It has only been an issue with Kathy," said Cushing. "Kathy just complained and never called me to work with us."
Amendola told the B.A.R. class=st>she tried to work with City Guides. But, she said, "they would not work with me or work together on this and they don't wish to."
Steve Adams, a gay man and Castro business leader who is president of the city's Small Business Commission, agrees with Amendola that the current permit system disadvantages professional tour guides.
"I am on Kathy's side of this. They should have some sort of permit if they go do those tours," Adams said of the nonprofit tour operators. "We need to keep both sides happy. The free people need to respect the paid people. It is only fair they should have some type of a permit."
He expects the commission will address the issue in 2014. Regina Dick-Endrizzi, executive director of the Office of Small Business, told the B.A.R. the issue is on hold for several months until she fills a policy analyst position.
Gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener , who represents the Castro and has spoken to Amendola about the issue, said this week that his office is reviewing the matter.
"She had asked me to look into the actual law itself to determine whether changes are appropriate. We are taking a look at it but have not come to any conclusions yet," said Wiener, who voted to approve the fee exemption for nonprofit tour guides. "We want to make sure the law is adequate to make sure the public is being well-served and that there is an open field for competition. It is not about one particular business or another business; we want to make sure everyone is able to compete on a level playing field."
SF LGBT aging panel to delay report
As the Board of Supervisors readies to fill a vacancy on the panel, the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force is pushing back when it will present its final report next year.
The volunteer body had planned to wrap up in January its work on recommendations for how San Francisco officials can address the needs of older LGBT residents. But the task force's chair this week suggested it postpone the deadline to March.
"Currently we had planned to deliver the report in January 2014, but I think that an additional two months until March would greatly benefit our process and end result," wrote gay attorney Bill Ambrunn in an emailed message to panel members this week.
In order to help it accomplish its work, Ambrunn announced that in consultation with subcommittee chairs he was canceling the panel's next three meetings to allow the various subgroups time to meet and develop proposals.
In the meantime, the supervisors' rules committee at its meeting Thursday (October 3) will vote on recommending one of the five applicants for the vacant seat on the aging panel. The person, who must then be approved by the full board, will fill out the term of the panel's former vice chair, Jazzie Collins, who died this summer.
The applicants are Carla Harris , 50, who identifies as lesbian and is board president of Pathways to Safety; psychotherapist G. Joyce Pierson , who was the project director for the LGBT Elder Law Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights; gay AIDS survivor and activist Gregg Cassin; gay lawyer James Wagoner, 57, who is HIV-positive and launched the GLBT Seniors Advocacy Project at Bay Area Legal Aid; and Marshall Feldman, coordinator of psychotherapy services at the UCSF Alliance Health Project.
The rules committee meets at 1:30 p.m. in Room 263 at City Hall.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on gay Assembly candidate David Campos's first campaign fundraiser.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.