Parking Meters at Heart of State-Local Dispute

By John Howard

Special Report from Capitol Weekly

Most people know little about parking meters except that they always run fast. 

But those meters have figured in a political dispute this year pitting motorists against the cities, the cities against the state and the drivers against just about everybody. Gov. Brown, meanwhile, has weighed in on the side of the drivers.

At issue: What happens when a driver parks at a broken meter? How is the charge set? Does the motorist get a ticket, even though the elapsed time is unknown? Some drivers say they get gouged and they have no recourse. Some cities say the meters are deliberately broken so drivers will escape paying. 

For the cities, the answer is simple: It’s up to the cities to decide.

“As far as the financial benefit goes, there’s not really a financial benefit. We have lots of parking garages here, and the first hour is free,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx. “That’s a small issue. The big-picture level is local control. We are trying to preserve as much local control as we can over the city. It is a long-standing tradition here.”  

The governor disagreed.

He signed legislation, AB 61 by Assembly Member Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, requiring the cities to have a uniform policy statewide. The new law takes effect January 1, 2014, and will remain in effect for three years unless otherwise renewed by lawmakers. It allows a motorist to park in a space with a broken meter for up to the maximum amount of time set by parking enforcement officials, without getting a ticket.

Gatto said his bill was prompted in part by an NBC report in L.A. that showed the city had issued 17,000 parking tickets in a single year for meters that were reported as malfunctioning.

“‘Local control’ does not provide a right to fleece taxpayers,” he said in a written statement following the governor’s August 12 action. “The question of parking at a broken meter should not be up for review or reconsideration every six months, nor should motorists be subject to confusing ordinances as they drive from city to city.”

Traditionally, the cities operate the meters, enforce the parking ordinances, set the rates and decide how to handle the money they collect. It’s been like that since the 1930s, when traffic-clogged, revenue-starved cities saw the potential in parking meters. In a city like Los Angeles, with 40,000 parking meters and some $150 million annually from parking tickets, this means big money and major government activity that interacts in a direct way with the citizenry. At any one time, perhaps 10 percent of the meters are broken.

In crowded, space-limited San Francisco, parking enforcement is aggressive, partly because it is seen as an anti-congestion tool. In San Francisco, they take parking violations seriously, with fines ranging from $46 for a simple transgression, $74 for an expired meter in the downtown core, and $880 for misusing a handicapped placard. 

The cities see parking enforcement as part of local jurisdiction. When meters are broken, a motorist can leave a note on the car explaining the situation, and that typically avoids a potential ticket – if the motorist doesn’t stay in the space longer than the legal limit that would have applied with the meter in place.

The problem is, the meters get broken and aren’t speedily fixed. 

“We have a severe problem with the meters always being broken,” said Luis Lopez, a board director of the Chamber of Commerce in Atwater Village, a community of about 16,000 in northeast Los Angeles. “The City of Los Angeles is not very quick to fix those meters. There could be a $250 fine for parking at a broken meter and the city wouldn’t fix them.” The high fine and the broken meters discourage people from parking and patronizing businesses, which is at the heart of Lopez’s concern.

“Parking is a big issue in our community. As far as business owners go, we rely on good parking,” he added.

Last year, a bill similar to Gatto’s AB 61 was approved, SB 1388 by Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, which allowed cities to participate in to a statewide parking meter enforcement regulation. But Gatto said loopholes in the law enabled cities to restrict parking, prompting the latest bill. 

The cities had signed off on the earlier legislation, because the locals could decide whether to opt in – or not.

“AAA came to us because their members were expressing frustration because they didn’t know what the statewide policy was,” said Jennifer Whiting of the League of California Cities. “In some cities you could park, in some cities you couldn’t park. In particular, Mr. Gattos’ bill was promoted in the L.A. area, and L.A. had taken a second look at the ordinance.”

After receiving complaints from motorists, the L.A. City Council repealed the ordinance allowing ticketing at broken meters, but left open the possibility of revisiting the issue after six months. Gatto’s bill bars L.A. from looking at the issue gain in six months.

“It’s got a three-year ‘sunset’ at this point,” said Wayne Dalton, the parking superintendent of Monterey and the president of the California Public Parking Association, an opponent of the bill. 

“We just thought it should be up to each jurisdiction (to decide). But they (supporters) used L.A. stats; they had all these broken meters. This thing (AB 61) kind of came out of the blue.”

 

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