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Action on L.A.'s parking ticket problem is overdue

PERSPECTIVE

Politicians like to duck the whole issue, but the difficulty of appealing pricey citations should be addressed now, while the contract of the private firm running the show is up for renewal.

February 15, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • What do L.A.'s mayoral candidates have to say about the ever-rising cost of parking fines in the city?
What do L.A.'s mayoral candidates have to say about the ever-rising… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Parking tickets are a big deal in Los Angeles. For years, the city has been jacking up fines, which slams many low-income renters and young people who live in tightly packed neighborhoods where they have to fight over street parking.

Most politicians don't want to talk about it because parking fines are a big part of the city's revenue. Those tickets bring in $150 million a year. When the city runs into money problems — as it always does — it's the easiest thing in the world to raise fines instead of running afoul of unions, developers and political donors.

For the sixth time in seven years, the City Council voted last year to jack up parking fines by $5. The latest hike boosted the penalty for a street sweeping citation to $73.

That's a heavy price to pay, and it's $30 more than what violators pay for the same offense in neighboring cities, such as Torrance and El Segundo. In neighborhoods like Koreatown and Pico Union, which were built before garages and carports were needed, there is nowhere to park for blocks and blocks when the yellow dirt-sucking trucks lumber by.

In this campaign season, it seemed important to get mayoral candidates on the record about parking tickets, specifically about one issue that is even more irritating than getting a ticket: appealing one.

Out there in the city, there are thousands of people for whom appealing a ticket is akin to trying to get out of Siberia.

Lucky for us, this is something the city can actually do something about. The contract is up for the private company, Xerox State and Local Solutions, now running the Parking Violations Bureau. Department of Transportation staff has recommended a five-year extension for Xerox, which had been operating on five-year contract that cost the city $86 million.

When I asked the mayoral candidates at a forum last week about Xerox's work, their responses were somewhat mushy.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti "will review the DOT contract recommendation when it comes to council," a spokesman said in an email. After which, Garcetti will "clearly take a position by voting yes or no."

City Controller Wendy Greuel, City Councilwoman Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez, a former tech exec, took similarly strong positions, saying they will closely review the contract when it comes to them.

Only Kevin James, a former prosecutor, promised to oppose the contract extension, saying, "I would vote against it."

Here's the issue with Xerox in a nutshell: Since Xerox took over, a group of people in the city says the company has been trying to keep more parking revenue by stonewalling attempts to fight tickets.

Jeff Galfer, an actor who lives in Atwater Village, filed a class-action lawsuit in January, claiming Xerox doesn't really consider their cases but just sends form letters stating that their appeals have been rejected. Then, when motorists try to appeal to the Department of Transportation, Xerox slaps them with late payment fees and penalties.

Galfer's case started with a $68 parking ticket in 2011. He paid, but he's mad.

The city's data on tickets seem to back up Galfer's claim that Xerox is rejecting too many appeals. Last year, the city dismissed thousands of tickets after Xerox had rejected the drivers' appeal — vindicating the small percentage of intrepid souls who managed to bring their case to City Hall.

City transportation spokesman Jonathan Hui said the dismissals are evidence that the city gives citizens a fair chance to beat their tickets.

Xerox would not comment on the litigation, but spokesman Chris Gilligan said that the company has been "successfully providing parking services to drivers and communities for 30 years, including our work in L.A."

Galfer, who started an online petition with hundreds of signatures against the parking bureau, finds both the city's and Xerox's statements hilarious. "I haven't talked to one person who got out of a ticket, ever," he said.

City staff has backed renewing Xerox's contract, saying in a report that the company provides "excellent services," although it has had "occasional challenges they had to work through."

The report did not specify what "occasional challenges" it was referring to, but perhaps the staff meant that flap concerning the "Gold Card Desk" a while back. That was the program that let City Hall insiders and their friends get expedited review of their tickets.

James, who shows no campaign contributions from Xerox on the city website, says the gold card matter was reason alone to drop Xerox.

"As far as I'm concerned [their] willingness to let that happen should end their contract," he said.

Greuel has received $4,750 in political donations from Xerox, its employees or its predecessor company since 2002, according to a Times analysis. Perry took in $2,000 since 2003; Garcetti and Pleitez have nothing from Xerox listed on the site.

Greuel said she has been tough on the company. As city controller, she issued three harsh audits that uncovered, among other problems, $440,000 the city paid for processing tickets that were voided. "I was critical" of the company, she said, adding that political contributions don't "have an influence on me."

Her focus was on the company's failure to squeeze money out of scofflaws, not on how hard it is to appeal a ticket.

Later, Greuel called back and said she had directed her staff to start an audit of the bureau's appeal process. Greuel said she was not comfortable going forward with the contract "without looking at all the concerns."

The problems with the process are just part of a bigger picture in which no one in power seems to want to talk about how expensive our tickets have gotten.

Times are tough. But really, enough is enough.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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