BY GABRIELE HOLTERMANN
Councilman Peter Koo joined OATH Commissioner Joni Kletter, as well as members of the Flushing Business Improvement District and the Union Street Merchant Association on a walkthrough tour of downtown Flushing on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to inform small business owners about OATH.
OATH, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, is an independent and impartial tribunal where almost every city agency files civil summonses for hearings.
The office provides one-on-one remote sessions for small businesses and individuals who have received summonses issued by one of the 20 city agencies like the Department of Sanitation, Department of Buildings and the Fire Department, among others. They receive guidance on how to challenge the summons and how to argue their case at the hearing. Plus, they learn which documents they need to present to the hearing officer. The one-on-one sessions can be conducted in any language, and at the hearings, OATH provides free translation services.
Joni Kletter, OATH commissioner and chief administrative law judge, urged small business owners and individuals to take advantage of the free resource and to learn about the services her agency offers.
“I highly encourage anyone who receives a summons to come and reach out to our help center,” she said. “We have actually conducted over 25,000 remote help sessions since mid-March, and just today, Gotham Gazette announced that we held over 100,000 hearings on summonses since the pandemic.”
Koo explained that many small businesses are under tremendous financial pressure because of the pandemic and that summonses present an additional economic burden.
“Many small businesses still receive summonses during the pandemic from city agencies, and there are many overzealous inspectors, and they fine for minor issues like missing signs,” the councilman said.
Koo said he was grateful that OATH provides a resource for small business owners and teaches them how to navigate a confusing system and fight a summons.
“We want to make sure that the city understands that they are small businesses. They are not here to create problems. They are trying to survive the pandemic,” he emphasized.
While visiting one of the locations, OATH was able to assist the owner of a deli and convenience store on Northern Boulevard. Yi Lu had received a violation — much of the handwritten note was illegible — from the Department of Buildings carrying a $1,000 fine. She had already contacted Koo’s office for help but was unsure about the court date.
Kletter explained to the owner that all hearings were held remotely and that she could schedule a date that was convenient for her.
Ikwahn Rim, who represents the Union Street Merchants Association and owns IM Jewelry, explained that 80 to 90 percent of Union Street business owners aren’t proficient in English and have difficulty maneuvering the many rules and regulations. He hopes that businesses get to know the OATH program.
“We get hit by summonses. It’s like the edge of the cliff. If you push a little bit, everybody goes out of business,” Rim said. “There is a lack of information, and businesses don’t know what they have done wrong. We need to have this OATH program so that everyone can survive.”
Timothy Chuang, who owns N.Y. Tung Ren Tang with his wife Jenny, shared that regular stores receive violations for the garbage left behind by illegal vendors. Chuang pays the violations because he feels that maneuvering the system to contest a $100 fine is a waste of time. He understands that they also need to survive but added, “That’s very unfair because they don’t pay any taxes.”
Kletter also introduced MEND NYC, a new citywide initiative providing free mediation services for small businesses that receive complaints from neighbors surrounding quality-of-life issues and want to resolve them amicably. The program also assists small businesses that have problems with their landlords about back rent.
“This is free; it’s voluntary. And we have had a lot of success over the last few months since we launched it,” Kletter said. “And we are very excited about this new program.”
For more information about MEND visit nyc.gov/mendnyc.
For one-on-one consultation about summonses and the hearing process, call the OATH Help Center at 212-436-0845