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Pizza Hut policy may violate law

Tarpon Springs' mayor says he hopes the city won't have to apply legal pressure to get the company to deliver in areas it's avoiding.

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2002


Tarpon Springs' mayor says he hopes the city won't have to apply legal pressure to get the company to deliver in areas it's avoiding.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Pizza Hut's decision not to deliver to certain areas of the predominantly black Union Academy neighborhood after dark is a clear case of "redlining" and may violate federal and state antidiscrimination laws, according to city attorney John Hubbard.

The city also may have the ability to revoke or suspend the company's occupational license to operate in Tarpon Springs, Hubbard wrote in a memo last week to the City Commission.

Mayor Frank DiDonato said he hopes the city won't have to pursue those options. He sent a letter this week to Pizza Hut's corporate headquarters in Dallas in the hope of persuading the company to reverse its policy.

Late Friday, City Commissioner David Archie, a Union Academy resident acting as a private citizen, said he had filed a discrimination complaint against Pizza Hut with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights. Archie said three other Union Academy residents also filed similar complaints last week.

Pizza Hut spokeswoman Julie Hildebrand said the company is re-examining its position.

Earlier this month, Hildebrand said the company decided to stop night-time deliveries to parts of Union Academy after one of its drivers was robbed in November by three teenagers, one of whom fired a gun into the air.

Though the robbery happened just outside the boundaries for the no-delivery zone originally described by Hildebrand, she said Friday that she was provided bad information, and that the zone extended south to Harrison Street, where the robbery occurred. The other boundaries are Lemon Street on the north, Pinellas Avenue on the west and S Disston Avenue on the east.

Another Pizza Hut spokesman, Patty Sullivan, on Friday said Pizza Hut wants to deliver to as many people as possible.

"We work to balance our customers' wants with our delivery persons' safety," she said.

Commissioner Archie believes the policy has nothing to do with safety.

"I haven't seen anything to make me believe safety is the issue," he said.

Rather, Archie said looking at the boundaries of the no-delivery area and the justification given for the policy, he can reach no other conclusion than that race is involved.

To base a policy on an isolated incident involving teenagers, he said, isn't sufficient grounds to "label everyone in a community as being a criminal."

There have been purse snatchings on the Sponge Docks, he said. And last month a shotgun-wielding man committed suicide in a Sponge Docks gift shop.

"People do rash things that are not right," Archie said. "Does that make it an unsafe area? I think we have to keep the proper perspective. These are isolated incidents that happen in a city."

As a city commissioner, Archie said he is willing to hold off on the city taking legal action against Pizza Hut until the company has an opportunity to change, or justify, its position.

In his memo this week, city attorney John Hubbard cited a federal case against a Domino's Pizza operation north of Jacksonville. In that case, the company refused to deliver to certain predominantly black areas because of security reasons. After hearing from the county sheriff that the security risk there was no greater than in other parts of the county, the judge ruled there was a "substantial likelihood" the company violated U.S. laws regarding "discriminating in public accommodation," Hubbard wrote. That statute is enforced through civil complaints filed by individuals, he said.

The city also could make a discrimination complaint to the county's Office of Human Rights, he said, which could prompt the state attorney general to sue the company civilly.

Archie hopes that legal opinion will persuade Pizza Hut to reconsider its policy.

"Hopefully, it will get Pizza Hut to do what they need to do, re-establish delivery," Archie said. "Hopefully, they'll understand the seriousness of what they're doing."

DiDonato said the controversy is particularly vexing in light of the city's effort in recent years to revitalize Union Academy.

"It's much better today than it was before," he said.

Five new homes were recently built in the neighborhood and another 30 to 50 may be on the way, he said. And the city has cleared more than 100 lots.

"We've done a lot," DiDonato said. "It's sad now that this bad stigma is coming down on it."

Archie said he was frustrated because city officials had similar discussions with Pizza Hut about a similar policy enacted six years ago. It was resolved when Pizza Hut reopened its delivery area.

"If they felt there was a problem, why didn't they sit down with us and talk about it before arbitrarily redlining a certain area?" Archie said.

The city also has taken issue with Dominos' policy of not delivering after dark to Mango Circle since 1995.

"I deliver to 99.9 percent of the area," said John Paulette, owner of the Tarpon Springs Domino's. "There's only one street I don't deliver to. It's not about government housing. It's a safety issue. Period."

The street is not well-lit, he said, and has just one way in and one way out.

Last week, Paulette said he stopped delivering there in 1995 after one of his drivers was severely beaten and robbed there. On Friday, he said he was mistaken, that the robbery occurred elsewhere, in a part of Union Academy the company does make deliveries to.

Paulette said he met this week with police. After expressing his concern about the lack of lighting, he said an officer assured him that would be corrected. When it is, Paulette said deliveries there after dark will resume.

"I want to deliver everywhere," Paulette said. "If they can show me it's safe for my employees, we'll be happy to deliver there."

DiDonato said that is the kind of constructive meeting he hopes to have with Pizza Hut.

"I think the first thing I want to do is sit down with them and talk," DiDonato said. "If there are problems, they need to make us aware of them."

-- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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