The Legal Ombudsman in the Department of Consumer Affairs is open for (small) business.
An ombudsman to help the city's 200,000 small business owners to navigate the city's often perplexing bureaucracy and avoid fines was created in July as part of group of reforms in the agency. )
On Oct. 8, James Hurst, a 41-year-old lawyer who has spent three years in the DCA's enforcement division, began keeping office hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays (with a one-hour break at 1 p.m. for lunch) at the Department's headquarters at 42 Broadway. Emails sent to Hurst at firstname.lastname@example.org are responded to daily. He also fields calls routed to him via 311.
"Small businesses now have a place to turn when they are unsure about the laws and regulations that DCA enforces," DCA Commissioner Julie Menin said in a statement. Hurst "provides a service that many small businesses may not have access to," she noted.
"My goal is to help small businesses," said Hurst, who deemed moms-and-pops critical to the "vitality of the city."
Walk-in traffic -- business owners can no doubt sympathize with this -- has been slow. One visitor had missed a hearing on a violation issued to his employment agency and wanted to know his options. Another was a frustrated woman who had received "multiple tickets from police officers" for selling her art on midtown streets. While she didn't need a license (art is protected by the First Amendment), the regulations concerning which blocks permit vendors "is very detailed," and the artist had outdated information, Hurst explained. He gave her a handout detailing the blocks that were off limits to prevent future tickets.
"About half of all the inquiries we get are from general vendors," - people who sell T-shirts, books, cellphone accessories, and other items on the public sidewalks, wanting clarification about where they can sell their items and whether they need a license, said Hurst.
"If they come in and say, 'Do I need a license?' they want to comply," Hurst said.
"Any help you can get from the city is good," as "it gets harder and harder every year," for small businesses in NYC, said Bob Sendell, owner of Columbia Hardware and Housewares in Morningside Heights. Sendell was most impressed by the new reforms having to do with violations as the first time many owners know that rules have been changed is "when you get a ticket," he said.
"I just want to make sure we don't find out about new rules until after we get tickets," chorused José Fernandez, president of The National Bodega Federation. Outreach is needed, he added, because many owner-operators "don't have a computer, education or technology, and spend every day" rooted behind their cash registers.
Indeed, outreach is coming, said Hurst, who said plans include holding hours in the other boroughs. "A legal ombudsman will be the most help for people who are just starting out and want to know how to follow the rules," said Gregg Zuman, co-founder of NYC Pedicab Owners and owner of Revolution Rickshaws. Being an ombudsman for businesses regulated by his employer can be tricky, Hurst acknowledged. "I can tell them their options," and explain city regulations, but can't tell them what to do, as he is not their lawyer and the business may have a case before the Department's adjudications tribunal.
While most entrepreneurs greeted the Department's reforms with relief, Zuman said he would like to see zero tolerance for all violators. "It's wrongheaded to ease off on ticket writing: It penalizes all the guys who spend twice as much money and resources to follow their rules," he said.