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Acrescent moon hangs on the horizon, dividing black night from the dawn breaking orange over Union Station. A block down Massachusetts Avenue NW, the door to the old Gale school at 65 Massachusetts Ave. NW clangs loudly as more than a score of sleepy District employees in white shirts and blue trousers hurry inside the Bureau of Parking Services for their 6:30 a.m. roll call.
Known officially as Parking Control Aides (PCAs)—the meter maids and meter men of yore—they are assembled for a dawn assault on illegal parkers. Just 113 strong, these blue-and-white soldiers raise more than $60 million a year for the city. They also manage to alienate most of the population while doing so.
As four supervisors with gold badges confer at a desk at one end of the squad room, 23 ticket writers with silver badges collapse into chairs that line the walls, looking like an encounter group for compulsive yawners. At precisely half past, there is a sharp rap on the wooden desk and George Carr, the morning shift coordinator, stands.
“Today is September 14th,” he announces. “September 14th.”
The date of this Tuesday is important. Every parking aide is expected to write 85 to 100 tickets a day, and if a writer labors through his entire shift scribbling the wrong date (it has happened) scores of tickets could be voided in adjudication.
“Good morning,” Carr continues. “You know today is election day.” He urges the crews to vote in the council chair race, and there is an immediate and lively barrage of complaints and quips.
“When do we get off to vote?” one man calls. Carr suggests voting after work. A woman says she has no time after work, because she heads straight to another job. Carr suggests voting on the way. There are more disgruntled demands for an hour off to vote; Carr brushes them aside and forecasts the traffic patterns expected during the day’s election. Most polling places are alongside the northbound lanes of traffic, while most morning commuters will be headed south. That should minimize gridlock, but voters will still clog certain streets, and Carr orders his staff to “relax enforcement” around the polling stations.
While he talks, many of the aides are busy wriggling their wrists. Each one carries three books of 40 tickets, and they are signing and dating as many blanks as they can before going on patrol. Pre-dating and pre-signing will shave only a few seconds from the routine of writing a ticket, but seconds are crucial on the street. The ticketers know that the longer they linger over a car, the greater the chance of confronting an irate driver. Pre-signing can provide a margin of survival.
Carr calls the roll, and then says simply, “OK, let’s be safe out there.”
The troops move out. Carr mingles among them, bantering about the big news in the parking bureaucracy today: The Bureau of Traffic Adjudication, the place ticketed drivers go to appeal their citations across town at 65 K St. NE, is shuttered for the day to accommodate an upgrade of its central computer. With equal parts humor and resentment, several ticket writers argue that Carr should give them the day off too. Carr laughs.
Groggy and grumpy, the ticket writers who walk the parking beat head for the blue-and-white vans that will carry them to their stations. By 7 a.m., they are scattered through the four quadrants of the city. Ahead of them are seven-and-a-half hours of ticketing, dodging angry motorists, and scribbling citations at a rigorous, carefully enforced pace. Each will raise about $2,000 for the city. Most of them will walk all day. They will take few breaks. The temperature will hit 90 degrees. They will be cursed at by the public. They will not get time off for voting or for any computer upgrades.
No one can say that the parking aides are goldbricking. The folks at adjudication, it seems, have all the luck.
Two hours later, the FBI and D.C. police arrive at the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication on K Street and arrest several employees. The “computer upgrade” was a ruse: While the supposed upgrade was taking place, all bureau employees were summoned to a “stress management” seminar that turned out to be stress enhancing; seven of them, including filing clerks and one hearing examiner, were handcuffed in the department’s conference rooms and led past their massed colleagues to police vans. The busts culminated a two-year investigation employing wiretaps, video cameras, undercover D.C. detectives, and snitches. One of those arrested was charged with selling cocaine inside the bureau, but the other six, according to the FBI, had committed the original sin: They had accepted money for fixing tickets.
Fixing tickets is older than the parking meter itself, but here in Washington, corruption is inevitable in a parking enforcement system whose ruthlessness and efficiency would have made Albert Speer proud. The system maximizes penalties and public resentment, while minimizing the legal means to avoid or appeal tickets.
Since 1987, the city has increased the number of ticket writers dramatically (161 positions are authorized, and 113 are currently filled). In the same period, the number of parking tickets has increased by 40 percent and revenues to the city have jumped about 50 percent. In 1990, many of the fines were doubled, as was the arsenal of Denver boots (from 400 to 800). The immobilizing orange clamps are now applied to cars with just three outstanding tickets. The boot brings an automatic doubling of fines, with an Orwellian $50 “service” charge on top. Those who fail to make financial amends within 72 hours can recover Old Clunker at the Brentwood Road NE impoundment lot—and pay, along with all previous charges, $75 for the tow and $10 a day for storage.
At the same time that the city went after cars with redoubled zeal, it made the traditional route of escape—the appeals process—even more difficult. The number of hearing examiners—the “judges” who consider appeals—recently fell from a dozen to six or seven (several were fired, others retired or quit), and at least one former hearing examiner alleges that he and his colleagues were pressured by his boss, a mayoral appointee, to reject citizen appeals—however meritorious—and extract the most money possible from tickets. This year, during a 90-day period of emergency legislation, the option of adjudicating tickets by mail was eliminated entirely, forcing petitioners to choose between two unappealing options: an expedition to the Kafka-inspired Bureau of Traffic Adjudication, where they can wait hours for a cramped and hasty review of their appeals, or the easier route of accepting defeat and paying. Mail adjudication has since been restored, but steps to toughen parking enforcement continue, and another bill now before the council would lower the threshold for booting to just two outstanding tickets.
The official rationales for vigilant parking enforcement are repeated like a catechism by the parking cops: Tickets improve public safety by unclogging thoroughfares, aid the retail economy by forcing a steady turnover of parking spots near commercial areas, and give parking priority to residents of neighborhoods adjacent to business districts and Metro stops. But critics of the system sniff another motivation—the oily smell of money. Enforcement provides revenue, and parking dollars have become important—some say too important—to the strapped city government.
The big bust down at the adjudication bureau stands as evidence that D.C. motorists are so desperate that they’re bribing government employees to nullify those pink slips that come in denominations ranging from $15 to $100. Legal relief from the parking Nazis may be on the way, though. Councilmember Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6) has heard the citizen uproar and responded with a bill to relax enforcement, and the vociferous sputterings of the business community have finally penetrated the ear of the mayor, who announced a new initiative (in plenty of time for next fall’s election) to curb—so to speak—the zeal and efficiency of the meter brigades.
“The system has gotten out of whack,” Brazil says. “No question about it.”
There is a hall of fame for ticket writers. To be more accurate, there is a wall of fame, located on the first floor of the Gale school in the main hallway through which the parking aides march to their daily assignments.
The immortal heroes of the pink slip are preserved under dusty glass in a pair of framed displays. There are a dozen Polaroids in each, representing the months of 1992. One frame holds the champions of the “Residential” beats—the minor leagues, really, since residential zones have low parking density. The other frame, labeled “Highest Production,” contains the all-stars, players on the lucrative, downtown, commercial beats.
Even among these overachievers, there are a few clear standouts. Marilyn Cabiness, for example, swung a heavy bat in the residential category, writing 801 tickets in August ’92. But no one compares with Tyrone Tucker, the Joltin’ Joe of ticketing, who wore the “Highest Production” mantle for most of ’92.
This is a man who, if given free rein, a supply van full of blank tickets, and a pot of coffee, could probably close the city’s budget deficit single-handed.
In January ’92, Tucker burned through 2,709 pinkies, or 117 per day (assuming he worked five days a week). In February, he scribbled 2,476, and in March he hit full stride with an unprecedented 2,816 (emptying 71 ticket books). One can only imagine the grateful D.C. treasurer, with tears in his eyes, greeting Tucker as he returned from his shift each day. In September, Tucker exceeded even the wildest hopes of rosy revenue projectors by shattering the 3,000-ticket barrier. There were doubtless those in the home crowd who watched the weary Tucker stumble back from his final shift of the month, clutching a wrist worn raw by his 3,010th ticket, and considered dipping his pen and ticket book in bronze and mounting them over the Gale school doorway.
Obviously exhausted by the ordeal, Tucker managed only 2,433 in October. Greatness extracts a heavy price.
But is this greatness?
What the Bureau of Parking Services honors on its walls is exactly what many Washington motorists despise—the tremendous success of the city’s ticket writers. A government that can’t provide services, assure security, or maintain financial sanity can do one thing well—ticket its citizens.
“It is one of the most efficient programs in the country,” says Skip McKoy, a parking consultant to the District. Even discounting McKoy’s self-interest, he has a point. The city knows how to wring every cent from the humble parking ticket, from writing to adjudicating to collecting.
And collection is important. Chicago reaps only 44 percent of the fines it sows; D.C. managed to collect 71 percent in 1992, despite the jurisdictional handicap that the District lacks any reciprocal enforcement agreement with either Virginia or Maryland. San Francisco, which has a similar number of cars on its streets, employs almost three times as many ticket writers as D.C. but produces only half again as many tickets, and recovered only $41 million in fines last year. The secret to D.C.’s success? A liberal application of the boot to cars on a centralized list of repeat offenders.
The 113 parking aides currently on patrol boast many of the qualities that citizens—and Al Gore—seem to want in public servants. They are held to strict performance standards, yet they are poorly paid, starting at just $15,923 annually, and have few benefits. Many are unprotected by union collective bargaining, so those who displease their bosses can be easily fired. The ticket writing machine succeeds where other government bureaucracies fail because it has a simple, specific mission whose successes—or failures—are easily tabulated in numerical and financial terms. Perhaps most important, parking enforcement is efficient because it is important; politicians care about this stream of revenue and pay close attention to its management. In its own lean and extremely mean way, parking enforcement is what a reinvented government would look like.
Being efficient doesn’t mean being humane. The goal is to write tickets, not to raise public morale, and lovely Rita the meter maid disappeared years ago, along with the $5 citation and the parking meter that accepted dimes. The parking ticket that lands under your windshield wiper has been guided there by outside contractors whose computer-generated models of traffic flow detect scofflaw-rich traffic arteries. The Bureau of Parking Services (a division of the Department of Public Works) posts signs, plants meters, writes tickets, and annually boots some 30,000 cars and tows 20,000 to the Brentwood Road impoundment lot.
The job of processing all the data and dollars is entrusted to the private sector. Lockheed IMS, the biggest parking consultant in the country, handles all the mail—incoming checks and outgoing dunning notices for unpaid fines, which double after 15 days. The Lockheed computers “capture” the data about when and where each ticket was written, assembling a hit list of the 65,000 cars now sporting three or more unpaid citations.
In 1990, Lockheed massaged the data and divided the city into 50 “beats” to boost revenues. Some of the beats are short foot patrols in busy commercial areas, others vehicular beats covering vast ranges of quiet residential areas. What every beat has in common, though, is that it will produce between 85 and 100 tickets a day. Each beat has its own specific target, and regardless of rain, snow, or shine, the ticket writers are expected to return with about that many stubs in their ticket pads. The parking cops write between 6,000 and 6,500 tickets a day. The number fluctuates very little; it’s not based on the vagaries of human performance, but on criteria of parking density, rates of meter turnover, the location of previous offenses, and the speed at which parking aides walk.
The whole caboodle is gloriously labeled the “dynamic deployment system,” and it produces dynamic returns for the city. In 1992, 2.26 million parking tickets were written, 85 percent of them by PCAs (police officers wrote the rest). This pile of pink was worth more than $60 million to the city treasury, $10 million more than the D.C. Lottery, that much-hailed revenue generator. In 1987, the city wrote 1.76 million tickets on windshields; five years later, an extra half-million tickets are slipped under the city’s wipers.
W hich you already know. Tickets, fines, and the misery of appealing them are no secret to anyone who drives a car in Washington.
“It’s been four years under this kind of siege, if you will,” says Bill Scheirer, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA). Scheirer has lived in parking-starved Kalorama Triangle for nearly 30 years and says that enforcement has become “picayune.”
Like everyone, he can provide an example: He was ticketed for an “invalid inspection sticker” because the date of expiration was incompletely punched through. Scheirer works into the ticket-victim’s usual lather, protesting this ticket on three points: It was the auto inspectors, not he, who punched the date on his inspection sticker; the inspectors glued the sticker to the inside of his windshield so that he could not remove and fix it; and while it was hard to see, the punch actually did go completely through the sticker. But the author of this particular ticket never put nose to glass to determine that.
A lot of motorists share Scheirer’s indignation. The system isn’t merely running faster and churning out more tickets, the critics say, but has run off the rails entirely.
“As efficient as they are supposed to be, they make a lot of mistakes,” says Michael Dorsey, a professional ticket-pleader who is hired by hard-hit businesses—chiefly delivery companies—to wait in the lines at 65 K St. and argue tickets. Paid a commission on whatever he saves his client, Dorsey identifies enough technical errors to earn himself a decent living. “We find many tickets that are, I can say, bogus. They should not have been written.”
“It’s extremely arbitrary,” says Andrew DeZarn, a manager for a small, Georgetown-based freight-forwarding company called US Express. DeZarn’s complaint is both personal and professional. His fleet trucks draw hundreds of dollars a month in citations, and he says he has stopped driving in the District because of the fanatical ticketing of his own car. His horror story: He parked once in an unmetered spot. By the time he returned to his car, the parking bureau had installed a meter and ticketed him for not using it.
DeZarn is making the ultimate statement about D.C.’s parking policy: He is moving to Virginia. He plans to take Metro into the city, then ride a bicycle to Georgetown. “I just won’t bring a car into the District anymore,” he says with evident anger.
That’s a widely held sentiment.
“People are always telling me, “I’m going to leave the District’ ” because of ticketing, says Councilmember Brazil. As a vocal opponent of what he calls a “predatory” parking bureau, Brazil is a populist magnet for infuriated citizens. While he doubts that many residents are actually decamping over a parking ticket, he does blame a hyperactive ticketing effort for contributing to the city’s loss of businesses. He says that companies are moving their operations to the suburbs, unable to support what amounts to a “tax” of constant tickets.
“The issue is whether or not parking enforcement policy is predatory, revenue driven, and punitive. Is it overenforcement? The clear perception of many is that yes, it is,” says Brazil.
While the citizen complaints have mounted—a Washington Post editorial complained of “extraordinary, unreasonable zeal”—the real noisemakers have been city businesses.
“There is no doubt in most people’s minds that enforcement is driven by revenues in this city, not by public safety,” says Bill Lecos of the Restaurant Association of Washington. “Tickets are being written in situations where there is no justification.”
The Restaurant Association joined with numerous area businesses—UPS, Federal Express, local Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottlers, and a handful of hotels—to demand some relief. They won a meeting with a mayoral aide, where they dumped $2 million worth of frustration on the table—the amount they were fined in 1992. Federal Express alone was tagged for $1.2 million.
Councilmember Brazil wants to be their Lancelot. Called “Mr. Compassion” by one ticket-crazed constituent, Brazil introduced a bill that would disassemble the parking gulag in two ways, first by cutting some fines in half, and then by what Brazil calls a “nighttime moratorium on minor parking infractions.” Double-parking and blocking fire hydrants and alleys would still be verboten; most everything else would be permitted. No more sticky business about counting 20 feet back from an intersection; you can stack ’em wherever there’s a piece of curb if Brazil’s bill passes.
Which it won’t. The bill is “stuck” in the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, chaired by Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5). “It’ll probably be stuck there forevermore,” Brazil says. “Of course, the administration is [also] opposed to it. Everything I come up with, they are opposed to.”
The sticking point is money, Brazil says. The alleged goals of the strict enforcement—traffic flow, steady turnover of parking spots in business districts, and priority for residents—have been supplanted by the gold mine of ticket revenues.
By jacking up fines in ’90, putting more ticket writers on the street year after year, and limiting adjudication opportunities, the city is trying to “skin every nickel” that it can from parking tickets, Brazil says.
Nearly everyone outside the system believes this. Nearly everyone inside the system denies it.
“I strenuously disagree that it is revenue driven,” says Lockheed’s McKoy. If the city were really after money, McKoy says, parking enforcement would put all the ticket writers into the lucrative commercial zones. Instead, half patrol residential beats that produce only 10 percent of the revenue.
Numbers are at the heart of the dispute. The PCAs are expected to write 85 to 100 tickets a day. To insiders like McKoy and Williams, these target numbers are nothing more than performance standards, part of bringing “private sector management principles to the public sector,” in McKoy’s phrase. Without some carefully researched expectations for each beat, parking aides could loaf the livelong day and then claim that everyone had parked legally.
But to critics—nearly everyone who has ever received a ticket—the only word that applies is “quota.”
“They’ll say a beat can yield a hundred tickets per day, or 85, or whatever,” says Jerome Heckney, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1975, which represents most ticket writers. “That employee, regardless of the weather, or the time of year, or whatever, is supposed to produce what the beat is supposed to yield.”
Heckney says parking aides don’t dare return to headquarters without meeting their daily target. Those who run short—55 instead of 85—are summoned to see a supervisor.
“This puts a lot of stress on the PCAs,” Heckney says, “and it puts a lot of stress on the citizens.”
Grady Williams, director of the Bureau of Parking Services, agrees that quotas are unfair. But he argues that performance standards and quotas are two different things. “Quotas are arbitrary,” he explains, while the parking bureau’s targets are based on a systematic, ongoing review of actual infractions on the street.
Brazil thinks there is a middle ground. While saying that exact numerical targets “drive this zealousness,” he concedes the need for some kind of general goal, whatever it is called: “If a guy goes out and drinks beer all day, by what standard are you going to judge performance?”
Of course, if a parking aide did drink beer all day, most members of the public would judge that a fine performance.
Many hands have grasped the ubiquitous parking ticket. Not surprisingly, the clearest set of fingerprints comes from the greasy mitts of Marion S. Barry Jr.
In parking prehistory, tickets were written by police officers and police cadets who had better things to do. The total was therefore low, just 1.2 million in 1972. In 1978, the city created the civilian corps of ticket writers, along with a system of residential zones, and the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication. Though one of the first such programs nationally, in its first decade the new ticketing regimen remained relatively benign.
It was during the last two years of the Barry administration, according to Kalorama resident Scheirer, that parking enforcement became ruthless. “Sudden is too strong a word for it,” he says, “but it wasn’t gradual. There was a significant change in a short period of time.”
Another parking protester, John O’Leary, agrees that the ticket siege in his Adams Morgan neighborhood began in the late ’80s. “That’s about the time the parking enforcement shop really got efficient and were able to find every known vehicle that was illegally parked or could possibly be construed to be.”
Maybe it’s just coincidence that in those same years, the city budget deficit was soaring. Perhaps it was public safety that led Barry and the council to increase the number of parking aides on the street by more than 50 percent in one year, 1988. Maybe all those extra salaries were paid just to keep fire hydrants and alleys free.
The link between parking enforcement and revenue demands came out of the closet in 1991. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon soon-to-be-Kelly attacked the city’s payroll with post-election gusto, ordering cuts in many departments—including the ranks of parking enforcement, swollen by then to an all-time high of 161. Kelly proposed slicing a mere 14 PCAs, but the city council flipped her proposal on its head. Axing the 14 blue-and-white enforcers wouldn’t save money; it would cost the city $7.5 million annually in lost ticket revenues. The PCAs stayed.
When Barry returned from the wilderness in ’92 as the delegate from Ward 8, he fought proposed cuts in the city payroll with a counterproposal—simply hire more parking aides to finance the threatened jobs.
Barry’s ticket-to-financial-solvency scheme was ridiculed by Kelly, but she later occupied similar political ground. This year, she put forward her own plan to mine more money from parking violations, though it concerns ticket adjudication rather than writing. She proposed Legislative Bill 10-357 in July, which takes a “no excuses” attitude toward infractions. Hearing examiners will no longer be allowed to reduce fines: Instead, they must either charge the full face-value of the infraction or dismiss it entirely. While that might sound like a good gamble to some scofflaws, Bill 10-357 also defines—narrowly—the conditions under which a ticket can be dismissed. Basically, unless the car was stolen, the ticket was filled out improperly, or the meter was broken, the driver is out of luck and the city is in the money.
Rob Robinson, an aide to Councilmember Brazil, says there is a general attempt to “unhinge the adjudication system, and provide the citizens with even less relief for tickets which may be unfairly given.” Even the innocent, Robinson says, are best advised to “pay anyway, or we’ll make your life miserable.”
Dorsey, the professional ticket-pleader, agrees. With no trace of a smile, he says that the city has already designed the ideal one-stop ticket adjudication system of the future. There will be a single large window, and above it a sign: “Cashier.”
Dorsey’s vision is far-fetched. The city has subtler ways of draining the pockets of ticketed drivers.
Larry Drayton knows those ways. A former hearing examiner, Drayton says flatly that the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication no longer aims to judge guilt or innocence.
“It’s a revenue-generating agency,” he says. Now an attorney in private practice, Drayton says that he and his fellow examiners were under constant pressure to rebuff appeals, regardless of merit.
Drayton says that, as an examiner, he tried to find a reasonable compromise during the appeals process. When drivers presented a credible explanation for their infractions, he would reduce their fines. “That’s the purpose of having a hearing,” he says.
After a few months on the job, though, he learned that not everyone agreed with that goal. Another hearing examiner even refused to reduce or eliminate the fine of an AIDS patient who had been too incapacitated to feed the meter, Drayton says.
And then one day the chief of the bureau, Joan Bailey, appeared in Drayton’s office. Bailey is a political appointee, who answers to the mayor. Drayton says that Bailey began flipping through his paperwork and grew increasingly agitated as she realized that he was routinely cutting fines.
“I thought you were down here doing this,” Drayton says she told him.
A month later, Drayton was fired without explanation. He is now appealing that decision, and hopes to regain his job.
Two dozen parking aides are deployed after the 6:30 a.m. roll call. As rush hour advances, so do the number of ticket writers; a couple dozen more are added at 9:30 a.m., two dozen more at 10:30 a.m., and another two dozen at 12:30 p.m. By lunch time there are almost 100 ticket writers patrolling the streets.
Linda Richardson, Badge 117, stays behind. Her beat is downtown, close enough to walk. And walk she does, at an Army clip that she will maintain for the next eight hours, with a single half-hour break. She wears a walkie-talkie, a wristwatch strapped over her palm so that she can read the time as she writes tickets, and a pair of black Fila high tops. “You need good walking shoes,” Richardson says.
She waits until a few minutes past 7 before starting her patrol. Parking meter and rush hour rules take effect at 7 a.m., but many drivers are late reaching their cars. Without a minute or two of slack, Richardson knows that she will face a fight. At 7:05, she enters her beat at the corner of 6th and G NW. A blue Toyota Camry is sitting alone by the curb. The meter is red.
She writes it. In 20 seconds, No. 75753710 is under the windshield wiper, the city is $15 closer to balancing the budget, and Richardson is marching down the street. She almost gets away.
“Hey,” a man shouts from across the street. He bounds to the Camry, his face clouding with anger. “It’s five minutes after 7,” he yells. Richardson keeps walking, while the driver’s eyes bore through her back. “It’s only two minutes after 7!” He yanks the ticket from its perch. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” he shouts.
And finally, unable to contain himself, he lets fly. “It’s not like we’re breaking the law or something!” he screams.
Ticket writers face arguments regularly, threats often, chases occasionally, and attacks on rare occasions. Neither the Bureau of Parking Services nor the Local 1975 could provide statistics on the last time a parking aide was hospitalized, but Heckney, the union president, says that in recent years there have been “a couple of people attacked, hit by cars, and beaten.”
“Nobody likes a ticket writer,” Heckney says glumly.
Angry motorists are not daily or even hourly problems so much as constant ones. San Francisco recently set a new precedent in the annals of parking when it charged and convicted a motorist for “verbal hate crimes” against a parking aide. (John Newlin, director of the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic, says the best he can hope for is “a status quo of hatred” against his department.)
Richardson presses through similar scorn as she continues her patrol. She has an interesting effect on the public. Wherever she walks, people stare at her. Some jangle the change in their trouser pockets compulsively. One man dashes for his car as Richardson approaches.
“He has good instincts,” she says.
In quick succession, she tickets a gray Honda Accord, a Crown Victoria, and a Hyundai with personalized Massachusetts plates reading “TROUT.”
A man standing by his legally parked car watches Richardson pass, and laughs. “You were looking at my car too close, honey,” he says.
She passes a gold Chrysler Le Baron parked flagrantly beyond the hash marks at the end of a zone. The car has handicapped plates.
“He’s so lucky!” she says, and walks on.
For a storm trooper, Richardson cuts park ers a bit of slack today. She doesn’t ticket the suspiciously large number of handicapped drivers congregating downtown. Few of these cars sport handicapped plates; instead, small plastic signs with the wheelchair symbol dangle from their rearview mirrors. Richardson says these are easily available from doctors—too easily, her tone suggests.
But she also skips the able-bodied drivers who are only slightly beyond the edge of the law. This is called “judgment and discretion” in the training manual, and critics say the parking aides never exercise it. But Richardson clearly does; she ignores a delivery truck parked wildly askew, rear bumper blocking traffic (“I don’t know why. I just gave him a break”), and waits by another double-parked truck to see if the driver will reappear quickly (he does, no ticket).
While drivers want some slack, the plain fact is they’re already getting it. The estimates of tickets not written vary; McKoy of Lockheed says, “For every one ticket we write, there are nine we don’t.” That figure is a bit suspect, but not in the direction you might imagine. A Lockheed study of D.C. enforcement concluded the real figure was closer to one ticket per 20 violations.
D.C. drivers will sometimes go to extremes to dodge that citation. Not long ago, one man followed Richardson down the street after she ticketed his car. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, she kept walking. The man eventually caught her and said simply, “Did you write this?” She looked in his hand, where he was holding the ticket and a $20 bill.
“Honesty is the best policy,” Richardson says demurely.
The parking bureau, however, doesn’t rely on moral fiber to prevent the kind of corruption that blemished adjudication. The daily routine of the parking aides is supervised so tightly that efficiency and ethics aren’t choices.
At the end of each shift, supervisors tally the number of tickets written, the time each was tendered, and how many were “voided” midway through the act of writing—a typical result of accepting a bribe. The parking aide must justify each incomplete citation.
Officially, the daily tally is a sharp tool for enforcing exacting standards. But disgruntled parking aides say it is wielded more like a blunt instrument.
Union leader Heckney says the daily quota is divided into 15-minute intervals. Checking through used ticket books, supervisors look for any quarter-hour gaps between tickets. One such lapse, Heckney says, and the parking aide is warned; two or more in day, and the aides’ pay is docked for the missing time.
This is not efficiency, but “intimidation,” Heckney says. His union members are fellow victims of a ravenous, revenue-driven regime. And however bad the pressure on unionized parking aides, about 40 percent of the ticket writers have it even worse, because they are temporary, or “term” employees, with only a one-year contract. The temps are not covered by union collective bargaining and can be terminated at will. Only after two or three years of good performance do they become permanent employees.
The temps’ uncertain standing contributes to frenzied ticketing, Heckney says. The pressure to perform is so intense, he says, that some ticket writers complete their tally by crossing into other beats and “poaching” from their colleagues.
“They live under intimidation,” Heckney says. The scramble has been most intense during the last year and a half, and it isn’t the fault of the street supervisors, he says. “The pressure comes from upstairs. It comes all the way from the director’s office.” He names Betty Francis, the head of the Department of Public Works and a political appointee of the mayor.
PCA Richardson is a permanent employee with three years of experience and some union protection. But she is less than relaxed as she keeps to her swift clip of walking and writing. In the first hour, she completes only 11 citations. She’ll have to improve that rate if she wants to meet her assigned target. And she does want to meet that target.
“Jobs are hard to find out there,” she says, and puts pen to paper one more time.
Given the District government’s history of waste and inefficiency, it was only inevitable that the city would rein in its one competent department. On Sept. 3, City Administrator Robert L. Mallett announced a set of changes designed to give the ticket-writing machine a human face.
The city will canvass streets and create 2,000 more spaces where obsolete curb cuts currently make parking illegal; it will allow short-term parking in front of hotels and some other businesses; and it will replace some 75,000 missing, confusing, or faded signs. The real crowd-pleaser, however, is the proposal’s second feature: on-the-street adjudication.
Officially, here’s how it works: If you get a ticket that seems unjustified, you can track down the aide who wrote it and demand to speak with a supervisor, who will be summoned by radio. Upon the supervisor’s arrival, the three-way negotiations can begin; if the sign was missing or you have some other convincing excuse, the supervisor can void the ticket on the spot. No mail adjudication or trip to 65 K St. NE is necessary.
The problem with the administration’s plan is that it neglects little realities of human psychology and “parking behavior.” No one believes he deserved his ticket. A very few drivers might admit they were too close to that fire hydrant or that the signs indeed forbid parking in a bus lane. But the parking ticket elicits a unique fury: fist-shaking, blood-boiling, murderous rage against the cruel system that tramples our individual automotive liberties. Is the city ready for the masses who will demand on-the-spot adjudication? When word gets out that arguing with a parking aide is not only permitted but often successful, the ticket writers will be fleeing from one confrontation to the next, and supervisors will do nothing but dash around the city pacifying motorists who want redress here and now.
The scheme does have one virtue—popularity. But the initiative won’t address the fundamental causes of parking tension in Washington. There are 243,000 vehicles registered in the District, and about 800,000 more enter the city every day. They compete for only 260,000 curbside spots, one of the largest car-to-space gaps in the nation. Private parking lots offer an expensive alternative, but many people would obviously rather break the law. But adding 2,000 spots will not change the daily curbside dance between PCA Richardson and an angry and restive driving public.
Given the District government’s love of waste and inefficiency, it was only inevitable that it would rein in its one competent department. On Sept. 3, City Administrator Robert L. Mallett announced a set of changes designed to give the ticket-writing machine a human face.
Under Mallett’s proposal, the District will survey city streets and squeeze in an additional 2,000 spaces; it will allow short-term parking in front of hotels and some other businesses; and it will replace some 75,000 missing, confusing, or faded signs. The real crowd-pleaser, however, is the proposal’s second feature: on-the-street adjudication.
Officially, here’s how it works: If you receive a ticket that seems unjustified, you can track down the aide who wrote it and demand to speak with a supervisor, who will be summoned by radio. Upon the supervisor’s arrival, the three-way negotiations can begin; if the sign was missing or you offer some other convincing excuse, the supervisor can void the ticket on the spot. No mail adjudication or trip to 65 K St. NE is necessary.
The problem with the administration’s plan is that it neglects little realities of human psychology and “parking behavior.” No one believes that he deserved his ticket. Sure, a few drivers might admit they were too close to that fire hydrant or that the signs indeed forbid parking in a bus lane. But the parking ticket elicits a unique fury: fist-shaking, blood-boiling, murderous rage against the cruel system that tramples our individual automotive liberties. Is the city ready for the masses of motorists who will demand on-the-spot adjudication? When word gets out that arguing with a parking aide is not only permitted but often successful, the ticket writers will be fleeing from one confrontation to the next, and supervisors will do nothing but dash through the city, pacifying drivers who want redress here and now.
Councilmember Brazil fears this system of street justice may be “unworkable,” but as a sworn enemy of the parking bureaucracy he welcomes the recently converted mayor to the camp of reformers. His question seems to be this: Is she sincere? Will the excesses of parking enforcement actually be curbed?
Don’t bet your last parking-meter quarter on it. In 1990, mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon appeared alone before the Kalorama Citizens Association. According to Scheirer, the residents showered Dixon with stories about unfair tickets and brutal booting. Dixon didn’t make any specific commitments that night, but she shared the residents’ parking pain and left a clear impression that she would do something. What she did was enter office and increase enforcement.
Promises come before an election, and the search for money comes after.
“Maybe that cycle is happening again now,” Brazil offers. “I don’t know how serious they are. It could be just posturing before an election year.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.