Where is Cool Hand Luke Now That We Need Him?

GELFAND’S WORLD--He sure knew how to deal with parking meters. The irritation of the parking control system here in Los Angeles is one issue that is worth talking about in a broader context. It provides a clear example of why obvious reforms are nearly impossible to execute if we leave them to the City Council and the mayor. However, there may be a way to fix things. 

This is intended to be the first in an occasional series of columns about a potentially workable approach to reforming the structure of government in the city of Los Angeles. As discussed below, it would involve a handful of ballot initiatives. It is something that could be accomplished given public sentiment and a modest amount of funding. 

Let's start with one parking issue. In Los Angeles, it took a court order to reverse an illegal and contemptible system for judging parking ticket appeals. Up until just recently, if you tried to contest a parking ticket, your judge was some guy working for a private corporation. Apparently it was easier for the city to contract out the appeals process. But a real judge said No to that system. So now, the city's Department of Transportation (the LADOT) handles the appeals instead of Xerox. What's missing, of course, is the idea of impartial justice. The question of your guilt or innocence is still being determined by a bureaucrat. Imagine Perry Mason having to defend somebody charged with murder by going in front of a judge who holds stock in a corporation that runs private prisons. 

The built in conflict of interest is obvious -- the City of Los Angeles makes a lot of money on parking tickets, way north of a hundred million dollars a year -- so it's unlikely that the City Council will extend justice to the city's motorists. At least not this year -- not when the city is facing its usual built-in budget deficit. 

There's one more issue. To quote the old joke, "It's not the principle, it's the money of the thing!" 

Letting your parking meter expire is good for a $63 fine. Getting caught being parked on the wrong side of the street during sweeping day is a $73 fine. I realize that this isn't quite at the level of getting nailed for drunk driving, but to a sizable fraction of our people it's a lot of money. In this modern age of part-time employment, many companies are careful to keep workers at less than 30 hours a week. What that means in practice is that a good number of people are dealing with jobs that give them 6 hours a day for maybe 3 days in a week. Some do better, but what I am quoting is not uncommon. 

This means that the $63 parking ticket is a full day's pay for somebody taking home $10 an hour. It's one-third of that week's wages. It's almost as though the state's minimum wage increases were calculated to keep the LADOT meter enforcers in operation. 

Nothing I've said so far is new. CityWatch readers will remember an organization called the Parking Freedom Initiative and it's two well known organizers Steven Vincent and Jay Beeber. (One of them even ran for a city council seat.) That organization has set forth its views on reducing parking fines and establishing elements of justice and mercy in the way fines are distributed. In addition, Mayor Garcetti appointed a group of people to review the system and make recommendations. 

I won't bore you with the details. You can look up the entire history online, or read Matt Tinoco's article in Laist.  

Even more recent news stories refer to reform recommendations being heard by a City Council subcommittee. Among the recommendations that have been offered from a number of different groups, the idea of reducing fines on first time offenders has merit. Another proposal includes linking street sweeping to smart phone apps so people can park legally if the sweeper goes through before the legally allotted time. 

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the City of Los Angeles will reduce parking fines. Maybe it will fix the unfair system whereby people get ticketed even after the street sweeper goes through, and will even create a system for reviewing parking ticket appeals that includes at least justice, if not necessarily mercy. Feel free to fill in your own joke about unicorns or flying pigs in this spot. I don't think the city will cut fines because I don't think the city is willing to fill that budget hole from somewhere else. 

Is there nothing to be done about the situation other than complain about it? No, it turns out that there is an approach that would override the City Council. It's part of a broader reform that we residents of Los Angeles could accomplish if we wish. 

If enough of us sign a petition to create a ballot initiative regarding these issues, we can have the chance to vote in favor of a reduction in parking fines, we can deal with the street sweeper issue, and we can insert a bit of justice and honor into the system that deals with challenges to tickets. 

This falls under the topic of reforms that are obvious, but which are unlikely to be passed by an elected City Council because it would rock the boat a little too much. I picked this issue as an example of a winnable ballot initiative to spice the stew a bit. Other reforms such as converting the City Council into a borough system (an idea with tremendous upside) would be harder to pass. 

The idea is to develop a collection of five or six initiatives that would be real reform and to pass them all at once. The process would involve developing some financial sponsorship to start the process, and we would want to get people involved well before the petitions go out for signatures. 

Why the multiple initiatives? The answer is that ballot initiatives that come from the public are limited to single subjects. We can't mix parking meter reform with a change in the makeup of the City Council. (Curiously, the City Council can create a ballot initiative that includes more than one topic, but that right is forbidden to the rest of us.) 

I intend to explore this idea further over the next few months. In the meanwhile, I invite you, the reader, to decide whether you have ever had a parking ticket that seemed unfair or overly expensive. Do you think you got a fair shake when you sent in your written appeal? How many of you were fooled by one of those polls with three or four signs, one atop the other, with the one that stuck you with an $80 fine so high and so far away that you didn't really comprehend it? I count myself among the unlucky in this respect. 

Perhaps the mayor's appointed committee will argue the point sufficiently well at the City Council that we will see some change. I don't think you have to consider yourself a cynic to be doubtful that this will happen. 

In the meanwhile, the residents of Los Angeles might start thinking about reforming the structure of our city government, and among the subjects of reform will be this irritation.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net