I'm not a civic-minded person. I'll admit that until a few days ago, I didn't even know who my City Council representative was. But last Tuesday I got a parking ticket—one I was sure I didn't deserve. My search for information took a couple dozen phone calls and a handful of e-mails—and several hours of my time.
I wish I could say the tale that follows is a triumph of the everywoman—but the truth is, at one point, I pulled the trump card from my press cap. Suddenly, I was no longer an ordinary citizen, but a reporter, too. I had a council member's chief of staff and a couple of guys from the Mayor's office finding answers to questions I couldn't get answered when I was asking them as an ordinary citizen. Would my piddling parking citation really have made its way up the ranks had I not mentioned I was writing a story for CityBeat?
We have a mayor who campaigned on improving customer service—we citizens are the customers—yet it took a reporter's hardheaded persistence and a team effort to find satisfactory answers to some very simple questions. Where's the easy button? Where's the 24-hour help line?
Tuesday: I didn't see it at first, lodged so far down in my windshield. I was already in the driver's seat when I noticed the telltale pale yellow of a parking citation. I plucked it from beneath the wiper blade and cursed. What the hell?My registration was paid, my tires clamped to the curb. It was barely past noon, and I'd just returned from a morning at the DMV, of all places. I'd moved my car during the three-hour period that's designated for street sweeping every Tuesday along Broadway in Golden Hill.
Then, I noticed the nearest “No Parking” sign. A strip of bright white tape with commanding red digits had been plastered between “Tuesday” and “Street Sweeping.” Instead of the usual “7 a.m.-10 a.m.,” it now read “10 a.m.-1 p.m.”
I've lived in the same spot for close to a decade. During that time, I've diligently obeyed the street-sweeping laws—Tuesdays on one side of the street, Thursdays on the other—even though it often meant parking blocks away, late at night, with a ton of crap to carry. How did I not know about this change? When had this happened?
I asked the owner of Influx Café a few blocks away. “I think it happened maybe a month or a month-and-a-half ago,” he said, stroking his chin. “They just sort of snuck it in there.”
My building manager, who lives a few blocks away, said the same thing. “I just happened to see the sign,” she said. “But I never got any official notice or anything.”
I was peeved. Two Jacksons—that's a lot of coin for a freelance writer. In a lean period, $40 is groceries. Less often, it's the rare but hard-earned luxury: a pedicure, a new pair of shoes or dinner out.
I dialed the phone number on the back of the ticket and waited on hold for nearly 20 minutes. By the time someone answered, I was agitated.
The woman on the other end told me she had no way of knowing when the street-sweeping time had changed. She told me to call the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering and suggested that I appeal the ticket—it would at least buy me some time because there's a roughly two-month backlog on appeals.
I imagined that appeals process: a bedraggled city employee in a claustrophobic room, stamping “Denied” on parking-citation appeals before shooting them off in pneumatic tubes to who knows where—the very Brazil-esque portrait of government inefficiency.
The woman who answered the phone at Transportation and Engineering didn't know when the new signs went in, either. She gave me another number to call—this time for the city's Street division. The ticket's envelope was now covered in hand-written digits.
Ends up that number took me to a recording—a monotone male voice reading off the city's entire street-sweeping schedule. At the end of the recording there was—you guessed it—another phone number.
So I called it, and this time spoke to a congenial guy who told me I needed to speak to his boss, Will Shipley. The call to Shipley was my sixth. But he picked up when I dialed—his was the voice from the recording. Off the top of his head, Shipley wasn't sure when the signs were changed—he thought maybe it was early February, and he was pretty sure it was on a Sunday. I'd have to make another call, he told me, to Traffic Maintenance, the city department responsible for changing the signs.
I'd already spent half my afternoon on the phone. This was taking too long. So I finally laid it out: “Mr. Shipley,” I said. “I need this information not only as a resident trying to appeal an unfair ticket, but also as a journalist. So if you know who might know that date, I'd appreciate it.”
A recent story in the Columbia Journalism Review talked about a speech David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, gave at a charity event. Referring to his days as a cop and crime-beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon described himself as a “grudge-holder nonpareil, motivated only by an egotistical need to prove to people that they were wrong and he was right.”
My initial motivation in calling about the ticket was to keep my $40 in my pocket—but with each call, it became something else. There had to be a smoking gun; I had to prove that there was some money-making racket going on—that innocent citizens like myself were left to find out the hard way that it was no longer OK to park on Broadway between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Shipley suggested I call the guy who issued me the ticket—the man who ought to know when the signs were changed—Officer Pouncey, the cunningly named overseer of the street-sweeping parking-enforcement crew. So I called Pouncey.
He said he didn't know when the new signs went in and, like the first woman I spoke to, told me I could appeal the ticket by following the instructions on the back. I told him that I didn't think my appeal would have a shot without any supporting information. He repeated that I had the right to appeal, end of story.
At a friend's suggestion, I called Ben Hueso's office—Hueso's the City Council member who represents my district. I left a message on the office voicemail system and received a prompt response from Diana Jurado-Sainz, Hueso's aide who handles issues in Golden Hill.
She explained that the street-sweeping change had been a resident-initiated effort. People felt that there wasn't enough parking in my neighborhood, and the early-morning street-sweeping time only compounded the problem. “Great,” I said. “I totally agree. It's a positive change. But I think it's unfair that I got a ticket and knew nothing about it. When was the change? Were residents notified?”
She told me that 199 letters went out to residents and businesses; she mentioned something about the Brown Act and a cap on how many letters a council member can mail out in a month. (I found out later that under the Brown Act, the state law that governs how legislative bodies interact with the public, the limit was intended to prevent an elected official from exerting undue influence over constituents.) I didn't really care what kind of limit had been placed on letters; all I knew was that I didn't receive one. My annoyance must've been apparent. “I'm trying to help you,” she said. “We also left hangers on windshields and doors.”
I didn't receive any door hanger. Neither did any of the neighbors I spoke to. And unless the windshield notification was identical to the leaflet en Español left by the iglesia around the corner, I didn't receive that, either.
Again, I wasn't getting the information I needed: When had the signs been changed? Initially I told Jurado-Sainz that I was a concerned resident, but, like I had done with Will Shipley, I mentioned that I was a reporter. Her tone changed from nurturing to prickly. She told me I'd need to talk to Hueso's spokesperson, and she put me on hold. It was at this moment that Ana Molina, Hueso's chief of staff, sidled up to assist me. She said she was helping me as a resident, not as a journalist, and she agreed that $40 was a big penalty for a small offense, especially if I didn't know that the signs had changed. After a decade of living here, I told her, I hadn't glanced at those signs in years, and I definitely hadn't received notice.
Molina placed several calls on my behalf. Though everyone got back to her within 24 hours, she, like me, had to make half a dozen calls to get an answer. Meanwhile, CityBeat's associate editor, Kelly Davis, dropped a line to George Biagi, deputy press secretary to Mayor Jerry Sanders.
By Friday, I finally had some answers. The signs on Broadway were changed the weekend of Dec. 15 and 16. Leaflets were distributed that same weekend. Bill Harris, one of the mayor's spokespeople, told Kelly that it would simply be too expensive to mail out letters to all the residents who might be affected by the parking changes. (Though, it's worth noting that in 2007, the city issued 90,000 street-sweeping-related citations. You'd think a tiny chunk of that $3.6 million could cover a mailer.)
I'm just the unlucky sod who didn't hear about it—I live in a gated apartment building, so no one was able to hang a sign on my door, and my car must have been parked elsewhere when someone came by to slip a notice under the windshield wiper.
When we first spoke, Molina told me she'd do what she could to get my ticket dismissed. I mentioned that other residents had received tickets and that if mine was dismissed, theirs should be, too. “Of course,” she agreed.
I received confirmation on Monday morning that my citation—and all citations issued last Tuesday along Broadway and Thursday along Imperial Avenue, Market, 25th and 26th streets would be dismissed. The Thursday group included residents who were only notified by mail (well, 199 of them); no leaflets were distributed along those streets.
So, it ends up there was no smoking gun. There was no one to prove wrong and no grudge to exorcise. Maybe I didn't even deserve to have my ticket dismissed. But I had a right to appeal, or at least find some answers to some very simple questions without having to take up so much of my—and others'—time.
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