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People call Deborah Morton a bitch. They call her stupid and tell her to get a real job. Morton, however, can’t concern herself with the abuse. She has been on the job for two hours today and has already issued 35 parking tickets. That’s on a Friday in August, when a lot of the regular violators are away on vacation. Two days prior, Morton pumped out 85 tickets. If she keeps it up, she’ll net close to 90 today.
Better slow down. Ninety is a dirty number in her line of work. Until this summer, Morton was one of the most efficient employees in the D.C. government. In two years, she went through three pairs of sneakers. For a salary of under $10 an hour, Morton would give out an average of 90 tickets a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. She called the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) 90-tickets-a-day guideline a performance-review standard. District leaders and their car-dependent followers called it a nasty, scurrilous quota. In June, District Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett had a stern meeting with DPW officials, who owned up to the 90-a-day goal.
In doing so, they gifted some of the city’s opportunistic politicos with a rallying cry for the campaign trail. At-large D.C. Council candidate Bill Rice has made the parking-ticket “war” a symbol of what’s wrong with the District; so have mayoral candidates Harold Brazil, Carol Schwartz, and Jack Evans.
Whether it was political pressure from the Rices and Brazils or just the workings of the omnipotent Barnett, the quotas tumbled in a DPW press conference on Aug. 21. Now parking-ticket-writers are supposed to be customer-friendly. They are judged not by the number of tickets they write, but by how crisp their uniforms are and whether they get to work on time. They spend less time on the streets and more time in customer-service seminars, where they watch video clips of rude cashiers and get lectures from D.C. tour guides about how to be street-level ambassadors.
And that, according to the powers that be and wanna be, is good government at work.
Candidate Bill Rice appreciates the rallying power of a common enemy. His campaign put up 15 anti-ticket signs by the ticket adjudication office downtown. In July, it dropped 10,000 parking-ticket simulacra on cars all over town. Rice is quoted in large print on each pink slip: “The parking ticket policy is war against D.C. citizens!” He calls the 90-ticket quota a “punitive policy” that symbolizes “why D.C. government is considered [an] unfriendly place for residents and businesses alike.” You wouldn’t think Rice would be so passionate about vehicular concerns, given that the symbol of his candidacy is the bike he rides all over town. But Rice swears he speaks for the people when he agitates about aggressive ticketing.
All that politicking, says Rice, is what forced Barnett’s hand. “I brought this issue out,” he says, adding that the sins of parking enforcement don’t end with the quota system. He’s calling on the city’s inspector general to investigate the parking-ticket racket. Then there should be a D.C. Council hearing, he says.
Rice could spend a good hour arguing with other office-seekers over who debuted parking enforcement as a political issue. Mayoral contender Harold Brazil, for example, went as far as to declare himself “your parking mayor in 1998 and beyond.” In addition to touting his “Parking Relief Act of 1991” at forums across town, Brazil has denounced the “predatory practices” of the blue-and-white foot soldiers. Republican Carol Schwartz held a press conference to herald her measure allowing free parking at meters at night and on Saturdays.
Candidates who don’t have pro-parking legislation in their pasts can at least spout some venom. Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral contender Jack Evans: “Parking-ticket-writers go out and, in order to meet their quota, stand at parking meters at 6:30 at night waiting for someone to come in a minute early to plop a ticket on that car,” he said at a June mayoral debate.
Vilifying meter maids is good politics because it’s wildly popular among the people who vote and give money to campaigns the people who have cars. And despite Rice’s claims to the contrary, it’s a perennial. Years ago after city leaders waxed outraged over the rumored quota Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly made just the sort of promises Barnett has made, vowing that ticket-writers would be friendlier and more service-oriented. In a 1991 Outlook story for the Washington Post, Brazil referred to parking tickets as those “evil pink flags.”
Motorists do get bogus tickets most often for violations that weren’t posted or for cars that were stolen. “Sometimes I honestly feel that we make mistakes,” Morton admits. But that’s what the adjudication system is for. If the ticket isn’t fair, Morton says, it won’t stand. According to a D.C. Council report, 28,414 of the million-plus tickets issued for parking and related violations in 1996 were dismissed after the recipients gave the city worthy explanations. “We cannot issue a ticket if they’re not in violation,” Morton insists.
In the 20 years he’s lived in D.C., Brazil supporter Shaun Pharr has gotten many parking tickets. He says he considers himself a “victim” of “unduly aggressive” ticket-writers, and he applauds efforts to ease up on drivers. Still, admits Pharr, “Every [ticket] I’ve gotten I’ve probably earned technically.”
It takes Morton about a minute to write out a ticket. And less to find a car that deserves one. On her beat near Union Station in downtown D.C., red meters blink all the way up the block. On an average day, she’s on the streets for six hours, not including two half-hour breaks and time spent at roll call at the beginning of her shift. If she writes just 15 tickets an hour, or one every four minutes, that adds up to 90 tickets. The number of violators varies with the day, but she doesn’t have to slink through shadows to find them.
And for every person who bitches about unfair tickets, there’s someone who gets off scot-free. Although she may be keeping her pen capped to ensure good PR for DPW and Barnett, Morton says she figures the Bell Atlantic repairman needs a little extra time. And the car parked illegally by Gonzaga College High School gets a bye. “He’s probably registering,” Morton says. Morton claims she won’t finish a ticket if the driver appears before she’s done.
Tickets written tend to be tickets deserved. After Morton slaps a ticket on a shiny white Lexus, a man starts yelling at her from down the street. She turns around slowly. He’s running toward her now, still talking on his cell phone. When he gets to the car, he starts waving his hands, demanding an explanation. Morton points to the street-cleaning sign right next to the Lexus, clearly prohibiting parking during that period. At first, the man argues that the sign is confusing. She lets him talk. Then she shows him the back of the ticket, explaining how to appeal. By the time he walks away to get back on his cell phone, he’s smiling. “OK, thank you,” he says to Morton.
Morton’s patience and people skills make her a valuable commodity in the D.C. bureaucracy, as Schwartz pointed out in a June mayoral debate. “First of all,” she said, “I would put the parking meter people in charge of every aspect of our government. I’d like them filling potholes. They would get it done. I would like them fixing the roofs in the our school buildings. They would get it done.”
Instead, these DPW busybodies drive residents out of D.C., or so the parking crusaders claim. But so does a lack of parking, which gets worse when restrictions go unenforced and spaces don’t turn over. And if you think it’s bad in D.C., go to New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has told even diplomats they can damn well leave if they don’t like parking tickets. Or Virginia, where Arlington authorities have recently started forcing handicapped people to pay for meters. The District has yet to take up that “predatory” practice, even though it would raise big bucks. On an average weekday, Morton and other city officials claim, up to half of the parking spaces are tied up by people using handicapped placards.
And even though Rice calls aggressive ticket-writing a war on D.C. citizens, more than half of the tickets Morton issues on her shift that Friday afternoon land on cars with suburban tags. Of the approximately 1 million cars circulating through the city each weekday, almost four out of five are not registered in D.C., according to a DPW report. Parking tickets represent the next best thing to a commuter tax. Until Barnett’s crackdown on ticket writing, the practice brought in $49 million dollars a year.
For God’s sake, people report having tried to chase down ticket-writers and failed. If only the cops were that fit.
Not everyone has gotten the word about the new Starbucks-caliber service of parking-ticket-writers. Patrick, a Nigerian-born construction worker, has an impression of ticket-writers that will be hard to reshape. “If I saw one of them drowning, I would walk away,” he says. His work site is right next to the 65 K St. NE ticket adjudication office, and he’s just been approached by Morton, who wants to know how long a construction truck is going to be parked on the sidewalk. There’s some talk of a permit, but the issue is quickly forgotten as Patrick seizes his day in court, rattling off war stories and demanding explanations for past wrongs. “I put 45 minutes in that meter and you gave me 30 minutes,” he says.
Not waiting for a response, Patrick complains about a ticket he got for allegedly running a supposedly red light. It doesn’t matter that the police and the DPW ticket-writers aren’t the same folks. He then coins a soundbite that would work well for folks like Brazil, Evans, and Rice: “You people hide in the bushes.”