The story of Steve Schroeder's parking ticket nightmare is not unusual. Last year, he got what appears to have been a bogus ticket while parking in a legal spot near an Oakland BART station. And even though he has convincing evidence that the ticket should never have been issued, Schroeder is on the hook for a $169 fine. The reason? He didn't properly follow the city's guilty-until-proven-innocent appeals process.
However, a little-noticed decision last week by the city council could result in fewer stories like Schroeder's. As part of a $900,000 a year contract awarded to a private company to handle the city's parking ticket collection process, Oakland parking meter attendants will begin snapping photos of cars when they write tickets to help ensure that the citations are legitimate.
The handheld electronic devices are part of a top-down overhaul of the parking division's collections system, which has been widely criticized over the years for being inefficient. The contract also includes provisions to outfit the Parking Citation Assistance Center with new computer programs that will expedite its ability to process and review tickets.
Although the number of bogus parking citations issued in Oakland is unclear, there have long been indications that the problem is widespread. Councilwoman Jean Quan said she hopes the new system, at a minimum, will facilitate an easier appeals process. "I'll have to tell you, in my office, I would guess, 15 to 20 percent of the complaints I get from my constituents every week are about how slow we are processing ticket appeals," she said.
The city's parking division, meanwhile, also hopes that the new system will enable parking meter officers to prove the legitimacy of citations, thereby reducing the number of people who appeal their fines. "When you have the picture right there on the ticket, how can you then say it's not you," explained Noel Pinto, director of Oakland's city parking division.
The system by ACS State and Local Solutions, the city's new private contractor, could boost Oakland's parking ticket collection rate by up to 10 percent. That would mean an extra $2.7 million in annual revenues for the cash-strapped city. The system is expected to be installed in about two months.
However, the city may have to overcome one roadblock before motorists start seeing camera-toting attendants on Oakland streets. That's because a rival private contractor, Duncan Solutions, has indicated that it might sue. At a recent council committee meeting, company officials claimed that Oakland didn't give them a fair shake in the competitive bidding process.
Schroeder's odyssey shows the scope of the problem. It began last March when he parked near West Oakland BART in what appeared to be a legitimate spot. There weren't any signs around or even painted curbs. Yet when he returned to his car he was shocked to find a citation, stating: "When appropriate signs are in place giving notice thereof, no person shall park any vehicle at any time on any street, or part of any street, so posted." Mysteriously, his was the only car on the street with a ticket.
A few days later, Schroeder wrote a letter to city parking officials, explaining their mistake. But in a July 31 response, the city said he was still liable for the ticket. The letter also informed him that he could request an appeals hearing but needed to enclose the amount due as a deposit. Schroeder was bewildered and thought the city was making a mistake. He was also worried that he wouldn't get his money back.
So instead of requesting the hearing, he took pictures of the street where he was cited. The pictures clearly showed that there are not any "No Parking" signs and that cars on the same street had not been ticketed. But after sending the photos to the parking division, he received a notice that the fine had gone up to $130 and failure to pay would result in his case being referred to a collections agency.
Outraged, he called up the citation assistance center and spoke with one of their representatives who said it was possible that the city hadn't even opened his August letter and reviewed his photos because the department was badly backlogged. Finally, in December, he received a letter from a collections agency. He owed $169.
Indeed, Schroeder's August 12 photographs had been ignored. According to the parking division's computer record of the case, Schroeder's appeal had been considered closed in July when he chose not to request a hearing, and so his photographs came too late to prompt further review. Parking director Pinto said a veteran parking enforcement supervisor had been sent out to the West Oakland BART station after Schroeder first contested his ticket and determined that it was issued correctly.
Pinto said he is not involved in the adjudication of citations, but added that he trusted the enforcement supervisor's judgment. He also admitted that the photographs, which were on file, looked curious but said sometimes people take pictures that misrepresent the situation. Of course, the same can also be true of parking-enforcement personnel.
Several weeks ago, this reporter went to check where Schroeder was ticketed and found that there are no parking signs anywhere in sight. Indeed, it seemed impossible that a veteran enforcement supervisor could have missed the mistake. But then late last week, after interviewing Pinto for this story, a "no parking" sign suddenly appeared near where Schroeder had parked and there were no longer any other cars parked nearby.