Todays’ blog posting relates to a parking ticket that my son received and what the adjudication of that ticket – over the course of 17 months and counting–tells us about the use of technology by or on behalf of a municipal government.
It all started in January, 2011. My then 17 year old son, Ned, came home with a parking citation for parking on the sidewalk in front of Fellini’s on Peachtree in Buckhead. The funny thing is, there is no sidewalk in front of Fellini’s. Moreover, there were no “No Parking” signs. We were so outraged that we decided to protest by filing an appeal, including photographs and the best legal arguments I could fashion. As instructed in the citation, we submitted the email to PARKatlanta.
According to its web site [www.parkatlanta.org/about.html], “PARKatlanta is a collaborative initiative led by the City’s Department of Public Works that is modernizing the City’s parking operations to improve convenience, access, fairness, and service for City motorists, residents, businesses, and visitors.” Like companies in the private sector, the City of Atlanta has “outsourced” a non-core function to an out-of-state third party that is better equipped to maximize revenue from parking.
I understand that the fiscal crisis has led state and local governments to seek revenue aggressively in respect of automobile violations, such as through speed traps. I despise parking meters, but they do help rationalize a scarce commodity (parking) and raise money that could be used for the public good. Presumably the City determined that PARKatlanta would be more proficient than the City at maximizing revenue. According to a November 28, 2010 article in the AJC [ww.ajc.com/news/atlanta/parking-enforcement-atlanta-drivers-755369.html], the City is receiving $5.5 million per year from PARKatlanta for the parking contract. Anecdotally, PARKatlanta must be pretty good at this; witness how many new meters and parking kiosks there are throughout Atlanta. The same AJC article states that the number of metered spaces had increased by 1,700 as of that date.
The PARKatlanta web site lists its objectives as “convenience, access, fairness, and service.” I guess that paying by credit card at a parking kiosk would be more convenient than feeding meters, if I could get that dang kiosk to work. But there is no evidence of improved “fairness” or “service.” And in any event, the web site fails to mention revenue-maximization as the primary objective, or even as one of them.
Some of PARKatlanta’s ability to make money off of its contract with the City relates to a shameless willingness to aggressively write tickets. Outside a funeral on a weekend day, my business partner had to beg “officers” not to ticket the grieving widow’s vehicle. Several times I’ve seen officers getting ready to write someone up who was a few feet away at the kiosk, trying to pay. It seems to be more difficult to distract these PARKatlanta “officers” from revenue generation than it was under the old system.
And here’s where technology comes into play. I have heard that PARKatlanta employs wireless technologies and powerful algorithms to tell their officers when a meter expired and where to focus attention. Isn’t it uncanny how a ticket has already appeared on your windshield by the time you seek to reload the meters a few minutes after expiration? How do they do it? Although I did not look into the technologies employed by PARKatlanta, there appear to be many choices for a software-based platform.
But when it comes to “fairness,” even the most basic technology is nowhere to be found. PARKatlanta and the City seem to have forgotten that a citation represents an accusation of a violation of a law, however minor that law is. There is little wonder that the system does a pathetic job in adjudicating contested violations.
Back to my son’s case. We never received a response to the email or even an acknowledgement that we filed an appeal. Instead, a few months later Ned received notice that since he had not paid on time, the fine had doubled to $200. This motivated us to try to call PARKatlanta on several occasions. In each case, after multiple prompts, the telephone system dropped the call. Was this a failure of PARKatlanta to allocate resources to the telephone system? A conspiracy theorist might conclude that the entire system was designed to frustrate an appeal, probably in the hopes that we’d give up and simply pay.
But we didn’t. I visited the Fulton County Solicitor’s Office (the old-fashioned way, in person) and told them our tale of woe. I made the point that leaving a non-governmental entity to handle a citation would be an abdication of an essential governmental function. They agreed. After I sent several follow-up emails, the Municipal Court finally sent us notice of a court date in June of 2012, a mere 17 months after the citation was written. (Of course, it should have been resolved by PARKatlanta over a year ago.)
As the date approached, we received a second notice from the Municipal Court, postponing the court date until October. We are well on our way to the second anniversary of the citation! The notice did not include an email, but instead directed inquiries to a telephone number. I have called that number several times, at different times of the day, and each time I received a recorded message that the circuits were busy. The circuits are busy? Please see the conspiracy theory above.
So here’s what we know. There is evidence of technology wherever revenue is to be generated, both to feed the meters and to collect citations. Kiosks, which are a relatively recent technology, make it easier to pay and often easier to increase the City’s inventory of profitable parking spaces. Powered by technology, parking “officers” have an almost supernatural ability to arrive at the car just after time expired. On the other hand, there is no evidence of technology when it comes to appeals of citations. We still haven’t had our “day in court,” even after 17 months of effort and time. “Fairness” indeed.