GELFAND’S WORLD-It was a totally chickensh-t parking ticket, and it cost me $80. Lots of us have gotten tickets that weren't kosher, and now I'd like to explain how we can take the law into our own hands -- legally -- and change the rules. How we do that is actually easy. We just need a quick 62,000 signatures on a petition for something called an initiative, and we'll get our streets back.
Right now, I'd like to take you on a tour of what's wrong with the current system, including the fact that the appeal you innocently sent to the parking authorities is actually handled by a private company that takes ninety million dollars from the city. I'm not kidding -- follow a little further down and I'll give you the city's own website where you can look it up.
So, let's use my ticket as an example. I parked in front of the music center along with about a dozen other cars one nice Saturday afternoon to see a show. I was doing what the city fathers keep saying they want us to do -- spend money. It will be a long time before I make that mistake again.
So anyway, there was a sign on a poll basically saying I could park there. What I missed was the other sign, way up near the tippy top, saying I couldn't park there after 4 pm. Actually the sign at the tippy top was more like the third or fourth sign on that particular poll. There were that many of them and they all said different things.
Like I said, half a dozen or a dozen other people found their own tickets after we got out of the show. I actually tried to contest mine. This is where you learn how grossly the system is rigged against the honest person.
I looked at the ticket and started looking at the signs. Whoa. The one at the top made me an illegal parker after 4 pm. You wouldn't have known it by looking at any of the other signs, lower on that poll.
You really had to look hard, and know what you were looking for. So I filled out the paperwork and sent it to the requisite address, and . . . nothing. Not a peep from the city fathers except to demand that I pay the fine in advance. I did. Five months went by. I finally tried calling a government office. Somebody promised to get back to me. Eventually, within a day or two of six months, I got a desultory letter telling me that the ticket was technically lawful. Apparently there is nothing in the law that says the government has to handle your appeal in any particular amount of time.
So I took the next step, which was to ask for a personal hearing, where I could present my argument that a parking sign has to be clear in its meaning rather than vague and ambiguous. I eventually got a letter back from the government telling me that I had missed the 21 day deadline for filing the second appeal. Hmm. The government gets six months, or whatever it takes them, but for me, not so much. Six months OK for them. Three weeks and a day not so OK for me.
That's the way the system works. Chicken litter tickets, a system that is rigged against the motorist, and fines that have been jacked up into the stratosphere. And why are parking fines so high? To make our streets navigable? No, it's not because it's what it takes to keep traffic moving and parking available. As insiders (and even not so insiders) have pointed out, some members of the previous City Council and the former mayor basically told the city how much money it had to make on parking tickets and parking meters, and the City Council acted accordingly.
The problem for the City Council and the mayor is that they have gotten themselves trapped. The city makes well over a hundred million dollars a year on parking control -- by now the number is half way to two hundred million -- and they don't know how to reduce their rate of plunder without adding to the budget shortfall.
But for the residents of the city and our visitors, we ought to set all of that aside and just fix the problem. And it's probably not difficult to do so.
If you go to the website for the City Clerk, you will find information regarding the number of petition signatures that it takes to do certain things. It takes a lot of signatures to change the city Charter or recall a mayor. It doesn't really take a lot of signatures to put a City Councilman on the recall ballot, but they have to come from voters within his district.
And miracle of miracles, you can attempt to change or abolish a city ordinance using signatures that come from anywhere in the city. And it's not that many.
So as much as I sympathize with the parking reform people, I wish they would get on with it. The only thing we have to do is to figure out how we want to write the law. It could be something as simple as overturning the city's budget after it passes. I don't know if that is quite legal, but it would be quite the kick. We'd even get the conservative voters to join.
Another way would just be to write an ordinance and get the signatures to put it on the ballot. There's a useful complication to this, because the City Council actually has an out -- they can take a look at the referendum, and if they lack the spine, they can just pass it as a new ordinance. History shows that Los Angeles City Councils prefer to do things this way. Their alternative is to put the referendum on the ballot, in the hopes that people will vote against lowering parking meter fees and parking fines.
So perhaps we ought to be thinking about what kind of reform we really would like to have. There's that old line about being careful what you wish for. We probably don't want to abolish parking meters and fines completely, although the procedure has been used in San Pedro over the Christmas holidays, and the city of Long Beach at one time didn't charge motorists to use the parking at Alamitos Bay during the winter. It's not that unusual a precedent. But perhaps in some areas such as downtown L.A. or Westwood, we would want to keep metering at some level.
But those $70 and $80 fines definitely have to go. We could write in a rule that caps parking meter tickets to maybe $20. Then we could take away the City Council's right to change the rule for the next five years, with only modest adjustments in future years. Make it the parking equivalent of Prop 13.
And while we're at it, maybe we should go back to 25 cents an hour metering, and get rid of those meters which take credit cards.
I can't wait to read the reactions from the people who really do have to worry about balancing the city budget. I think I can predict what they will say. So can you. So let's answer them right here and now. No, you shouldn't get to do something which is marginally good (balance the budget using a gimmick) while doing damage to what is right and ethical.
There seems to be a grassroots movement that is building here in LA. There is of course the federal lawsuit, which seeks to get parking fines viewed as unconstitutional. I don't think it's a winning argument, but it seems to me that an $80 fine is still a fine, whether you call it an infraction or something else, so there should be some element of due process. There is a citizens' movement that has been covered by the LA Times. Best of all, we have the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative, run by Steven Vincent and Jay Beeber, which has been featured in CityWatch and has done a lot to educate the voters. You can see their response to the mayor's new budget at their site. (Hint: They have a problem with it.)
Let's finish with another illustration about how the system is rigged, the story I promised you up above.
You see, the city doesn't actually take your appeal note and read it, or hand it to a judge, or even give it to a law student to read. What the city has done is really despicable. It has outsourced the handling of your parking ticket appeal to a private company. You can find the Xerox contract by clicking on the part that says, "You can view our current service contracts here," and scrolling down to the bottom. Or you can read the CBS story on the internet. And can you guess what the company's incentive is? I thought so.
Maybe having Xerox handle the parking appeals process is about as clean as any such system can be, but it's like motorcycle cops and giving out tickets. In practice, commanders of motorcycle cops don't set hard quotas for fear of generating lawsuits, but in reality, the quotas usually exist. We ought to know about the motorcycle cops, because a bunch of them won a big lawsuit against the city for forcing the quota system down their throats.
I have a curious history, because I don't get a lot of traffic tickets -- maybe one every three decades or so, but I have had a few parking tickets over the past ten years. And at least half the time, the appeals process seems to take forever after I send the letter, and to be totally unfair when they finally do something.
And here's the kicker. LA may be bad, but the county is worse. Their appeals process is a worse sick joke than the city's.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])
Vol 12 Issue 33
Pub: Apr 22, 2014