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Tired of the Los Angeles parking ticket runaround

A chorus of complaints about the city bureau that handles parking violations is circulating around town and springing up on the Web. Critics cite the appeal process and a lack of transparency.

February 24, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeff Galfer has posted an online petition calling for a class-action suit against the Los Angeles Parking Violations Bureau.
Jeff Galfer has posted an online petition calling for a class-action suit… (Christina House / For the…)

"You're not going to believe what happened last night," Jeff Galfer said as he opened the door to his Atwater Village apartment. "I got another ticket."

Galfer and I had been talking for weeks about his Kafkaesque battles with the Los Angeles Parking Violations Bureau. Galfer would contest what he thought was an unfair parking citation, and the bureau would tell him his fine was on hold while the appeal was under review.

The next thing he knew, a letter would arrive saying he owed not only the original fine, but late fees and penalties. If he never received notice that it was time to pay up, then that was the Postal Service's problem, they told him. Fork over the money or face a DMV registration hold or worse: towing, impoundment or the dreaded parking boot.

Galfer's story would be of fleeting interest if it weren't for the strikingly similar chorus of complaints now circulating around town and springing up on the Web. The parking bureau's Yelp consumer review page has nearly 150 entries, almost uniformly negative. A YouTube video features live audio of a bureau employee giving another driver the same line about not being responsible for post office mistakes. In another YouTube parody called "I Cite You," an actress in a meter maid costume raps, "The only option you have is pay, pay, pay ... add on some fees and late penalties."

"It's either a scam or if it's not a scam, it's completely badly run," Galfer, 32, says. "Either way, something needs to be done."

In that vein, Galfer has posted an online petition calling for a class-action suit against the bureau.

Now, do many Angelenos think the rules are there for somebody else? Yes. Do they feel entitled — insufferably so? Sure, some of them.

And is there anything more enraging than coming back from a nice dinner to find a citation, however well-deserved, tucked under your windshield wiper? Nope. Galfer admits that of the more than $700 he owes in parking tickets, some was for legitimate violations: His meter expired, or he parked on the wrong side of the street during street sweeping.

His beef is that the parking bureau refuses to admit when it messes up. The tales of appeal runarounds are too widespread to ignore. For many people under 30 who frequent the parking-challenged quarters of L.A., the Violations Bureau is Public Enemy No. 1.

"I am extremely passionate about my love for this city, but this 'department' single handedly makes me want to move to a far away land that doesn't require a vehicle to get around," Katie B. of Los Angeles posted to Yelp.

What really galls the bureau's critics is its lack of transparency. The Los Angeles Parking Violations Bureau's operations have been outsourced to a private contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, State and Local Solutions Inc., an arm of Xerox Corp.

ACS government contracts stretch from Paris to Juarez, Mexico, and the company operates in all 50 states. In a five-year period of running the city's parking bureau, the company was paid $86 million.

Yet nowhere at the bureau's four offices, or in its copious correspondence with violators, is ACS even mentioned. The bureau's website carries multiple images of the city seal, but there is no disclosure of who runs ACS, its address or phone number. There is nowhere to complain of poor business practices.

I talked to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which oversees the bureau. It says it has identified no particular problem with ACS' handling of appeals.

"They've met all the contract compliance metrics," transportation analyst Robert Andalon said in classic bureaucratese.

ACS points out that public employees with the transportation department write the tickets and decide the appeals. ACS just processes them.

About 40% of contested citations are overturned, Andalon said. Another 40% are thrown out later at administrative hearings, which seems to suggest a problem with the initial reviews, but oh well.

"We have no say or financial interest in whether contested citations are upheld or dismissed," ACS said in a statement. An ACS spokesman also downplayed the significance of the negative Yelp reviews over the last 4 1/2 years.

"I counted 145," Chris Gilligan said "That's three a month."

I've never understood why a union town like Los Angeles outsources so many government operations. In order to replace city workers, the city had to find that the parking bureau could be run more "feasibly and economically" by the private sector.

But the city never seems to go back and see if privatization is cheaper. $86 million? Really? When City Controller Wendy Greuel examined a number of city contracts in 2010, she said a third of them failed to show that privatization saved money or improved efficiency.

ACS is a major political donor to both city and state politicians. In October, the firm made campaign contributions of $20,000 each to the Democratic and Republican state parties. The company's lobbyist was Manatt Phelps & Phillips, a politically powerful law firm.

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