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Hartselle Enquirer

Council hears complaints about Hartselle business owner

By Jean Cole 

For the Enquirer  

 

Three downtown Hartselle business owners have asked City Council members to help them deal with a fellow business owner they say has been repeatedly hostile toward them, their employees and sometimes their customers. 

During the council meeting Tuesday, the owners said Mei Huei Lai, who owns Sunflowers at 223 Main St. W., routinely bangs on their store windows and enters their businesses and behaves in an antagonistic manner. Due to a language barrier — they say the owner speaks Chinese — they do not understand her grievances. 

Beth Kershner, who owns the gift shop Zoey’s Downtown at 225 Main St. W., asked the council what could be done, including revoking the owner’s business license. City Clerk Rita Lee confirmed Wednesday that Huei Lai holds a current business license. 

The council took no action, but the city attorney agreed to investigate the matter. Kershner also gave the council a list of rules she would like the business owner to abide by in the future.  

“There’s really nothing we can do unless a crime is committed and even then, it’s debatable,” Council President Kenny Thompson told The Daily on Thursday. “We are in a no-win situation.” 

Huei Lai did not attend the meeting. When contacted by The Daily by telephone she seemed to understand some of her neighbors are unhappy. She acknowledged she had an issue with parking but the language barrier prevented her from elaborating.  

Kershner submitted a list asking the Sunflowers owner to do the following if she is to remain in downtown Hartselle: 

  • Refrain from entering neighboring stores or banging on store windows.

“I don’t know what she’s mad about — I don’t speak Mandarin Chinese — but I don’t need her in there raising that kind of ruckus in my store,” Kershner said. 

  • Refrain from parking on Main Street with her car “draped with red fabric of any kind.” Refrain from “outlining her vehicle with flowers, rulers, tape or taping signs on her car while it’s parked on Main Street.”

“Customers come in and wonder what is going on … is it safe?” Kershner said. 

  • Refrain from accosting the staff of other shopkeepers by banging on their cars, trying to open their car doors or yelling at them.

“This has happened to my staff on more than one occasion. I have even made police reports about it,” Kershner said. 

  • Refrain from “cussing and yelling” at other shop owners or their personnel as well as shoppers and visitors.

“I don’t know what upsets her, but our belief is it has something to do with parking on Main Street,” Kershner said. 

Kershner asked that Huei Lai have a translator available, and asked the council to revoke Sunflowers’ business license.  

 

The law 

City Attorney Larry Madison, who attended the meeting, told Kershner the council could not arbitrarily revoke a person’s business license. 

Thompson asked the city attorney what the council could do. 

“A lot of those things, nothing,” Madison said. “Can’t require her to get a translator. We can’t require her to be nice. We can’t require her to be polite. We can’t take her business license or any of those things that deprive them of their constitutional rights without due process of law. 

“On the other hand, if you tell her don’t come on my property and don’t touch my glass, then she is trespassing when she does and could be prosecuted.” 

Madison said there may be some actions the city could take but he must investigate first. 

“I don’t think we can revoke her business license, but I will look and see if there is any precedent for it,” he said.  

Kershner, who opened the business 2½ years ago, said the problems are not new. She said it had been going on at least 10 years but is getting worse.  

Madison told Kershner that if Huei Lai is interfering with her business opportunities it is really a civil matter, not a criminal one. 

“I do appreciate your situation,” he said. “We will look into it.” 

In light of recent events, Kershner said she believes action must be taken by either the council or the police. 

“It’s not a question of if she is going to become violent and hurt somebody, it’s a question of when that is going to happen,” Kershner said. “And I’m going to tell you, it’s going to happen on city property because it’s either going to happen in the street or on the sidewalk.” 

Kristy Urban of Urban Altered said every time her receptionist goes out to water the flowers or sweep, Huei Lai comes over and “berates them, yells at them.” 

She said the receptionists have seen her come to the other side of the street and take pictures of people’s license plates. 

“If they get out of the car, she yells at them,” Urban said.  

Thompson asked whether these reported issues could lead to the revocation of a business license. 

“If you are interfering with the surrounding businesses, maybe,” Madison said. “I’ll have to look it up.” 

Jeanette Fiore, of Greco Fiore Designs, said “the behavior is going in a bad direction and is getting worse.” 

Fiore said the business owners came to the council out of frustration, but they want to be equitable. 

“We want to be fair. We want to be kind. We don’t want to destroy somebody’s livelihood,” Fiore said.  

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