Usually Henry Robertson is busy jar-ring organic olives, but lately he's been sidetracked by a can of worms. In recent weeks Robertson, a Vietnam veteran and owner of Henry's Olives in Cutten, has been wrangling with various local government agencies over their non-compliance with state law.
The snafu surfaced last month when Robertson, 58, stopped by the Arcata City Hall to renew his business license to sell olives at the Arcata Farmers' Market. When Robertson, a staple at the market for the past two years, inquired about a fee exemption, which he understood was his due as a veteran, he got a funny response.
"The lady [clerk] says, 'That's just for veterans of the Korean War," Robertson recalled. "And I went, 'Well, are you sure? Would you mind looking it up?'"
She did, and what she found showed that Robertson was right. It was a significant victory for Robertson, who has taken it upon himself to ensure that local governments are respecting the law of the State of California when it comes to giving veterans a break.
Section 16102 of the California Business and Professions Code states: "Every soldier, sailor or marine of the United States who has received an honorable discharge or a release from active duty under honorable conditions from such service may hawk, peddle and vend any goods, wares or merchandise owned by him, except spirituous, malt, vinous or other intoxicating liquor, without payment of any license, tax or fee whatsoever, whether municipal, county or State, and the board of supervisors shall issue to such soldier, sailor or marine, without cost, a license therefor."
In other words, if you're a veteran selling olives, you should not be paying for your business license. But if you're a veteran who cuts hair, like Arcata's Bluegrass Barber Terry Brill, well, fork over $40, please. The law applies only to those "hawking" merch, not those offering services.
According to Robertson, the Arcata clerk agreed to waive his fee and also refunded him $80 for past licenses. On Tuesday, City of Arcata Finance Office Manager Rachel Zollner said beyond the general peddling status, that her office interpreted the law to mean that Robertson is exempt mainly because he is selling his olives outdoors on the Plaza. Brick and mortar shops, she said, probably would not qualify for the exemption.
But according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, even veterans with storefronts are eligible for fee waivers.
Though Robertson got his money back in the end, he was still irked by the fee brouhaha. He wondered if other cities in Humboldt County were following the law. And what about all the other veterans who had been unwittingly paying for licenses? Would they get their money back, too? Robertson, who operates his business out of Cutten, an unincorporated area, knew only that the County of Humboldt, at least, was abiding the law -- section 16102 - because his county fee had always been waived.
In fact, Humboldt County took it a step too far, and for years had been giving free licenses to veterans who did not even qualify.
"From the county standpoint," explained County Tax Assessor Stephen Strawn, "it is likely that over years different individuals within my office were assigned this and said, 'A veteran is a veteran is a veteran,'" and were not aware of all the criteria the veteran needed to meet. For instance, Strawn explained, the veteran must be selling his or her own merchandise, like olives, and not vending things like Coca-Cola or Ford trucks.
Strawn said his department discovered the freebie error just a month ago and has since begun charging for licenses, which range between $10 and $40 annually, depending on revenue. (Even businesses as large as Pacific Lumber Co. only pay $40.) Strawn said there are about 50 veteran-owned business in Humboldt County.
"It is a very unique part of business license law," Strawn said. "It is not one we address every day."
The veterans' exemption, it seems, tends to get overlooked or misinterpreted by municipalities when watchdogslike Robertson aren't pushing the issue. Each city and county looks at the law differently, said Stewart MacKenzie, disabled veterans outreach coordinator for the California Veterans Services Division.
During a phone callon Tuesday, MacKenzie said he had just finished speaking with a veteran business owner in Oxnard experiencing similar frustrations as Henry Robertson. "And I told the gentleman in Southern California, unfortunately, there are lots of small statutes that are not followed and the course of action is the Attorney General," he said. "Now imagine going to him [the Attorney General] and saying, 'I want you to prosecute the olive case.'
"So basically," he went on, "what it comes down to is, it is between the veteran and the municipality. This guy in Southern California is getting a lawyer."
But MacKenzie's coworker, state Veterans Benefits Outreach Coordinator Brian O'Hara, said that the legal route is one his department hopes to bypass. He explained that when a veteran calls him with business license problems, he offers to talk with the city official and encourage them to comply with the unenforced state law.
"Most people don't want to say, 'We don't like veterans," he said. "[Veterans] have gone through pain and suffering for their country and most cities realize it and try to give them a break."
World War II veteran and Humboldt Taxpayers' League member Jerry Partain, of Bayside, said Monday that he was unfamiliar with the business license law but would support Robertson in his bid to get Humboldt cities to erase dues for veterans.
"The problem with a lot of these laws is they get on the books and just sit there," he said. "Unless you're looking for it, or someone clues you in on it you don't know."
According to Robertson, a Eureka city employee explained to him that since Eureka is a charter city - and therefore has more freedom to govern its own affairs compared to general law cities like Arcata - it was not required to give special exemptions to veterans. But, he said, the city later agreed to give him a free business license anyway.
"They said, 'We'll honor it for you,' he said. "But I don't want it just for me. This isn't about just me. It's about all veterans."
One solution, he suggested, would be for city finance departments to simply include a passage about the state law on business applications.
On Tuesday morning, the Journalinquired with the City of Ferndale about its business license regulations. The woman working the phones said fees for disabled veterans are waived as per the city's business ordinance. She was unfamiliar, however, with state's Business and Professions Code 16102.
"I'll look it up and I'll make that change," she said. "Thanks so much for telling me."
Calls to the finance departments of Eureka and Fortuna city halls were not returned before deadline.