Fall Sweeps

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FALL SWEEPS: A Street Sweeping and Parking Enforcement Investigation

By Matt Schrader

You can pay by check or credit card, but that’s the only convenience of getting a parking ticket in Los Angeles.

The printed slips of paper seem to appear all by themselves on illegally parked cars in L.A. — the result of a Parking Enforcement team that seems nearly omnipresent, and all too up to the task of ruining someone’s day.

But in recent years the amount of revenue from parking fines has increased noticeably, according to officials in the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, while the number of complaints has skyrocketed.

An undercover investigation stretching from August 28 to Oct. 30 revealed that, while the City of Los Angeles is ticketing every street weekly for “street cleaning,” it is failing to actually sweep those streets — an inaction that may open up the City to legal issues due to hazy legal wording in the municipal code.

Chapter VII, section 80.69 mentions that “Parking Prohibited/Street Cleaning” is a ticketable offense, but the City only holds the power to ticket if it claims that any vehicle parking would “detrimentally affect the public welfare” — all definitions of what that means, in regard to street sweeping or otherwise, are left open to interpretation.

Download this part of the Municipal Code (Microsoft Word)

“Posted routes are done once a week,” said John Sapone, manager of the City’s Street Maintenance Division.

In an investigation that took more than two months to complete, monitoring nine streets in Downtown Los Angeles, however, “weekly” seemed to be an overstatement.

The results showed that the City simply isn’t sweeping some streets — though cars along them are still slapped with $60 tickets.

THE INVESTIGATION

Using a digital video camera, nine streets were monitored on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between Sept. 2 and Oct. 30.

Of those, only two-thirds of the streets were swept weekly.

The investigation had a small sample size — when compared to the 7,000 miles of city streets assumedly swept weekly, according to Street Services’ Hugo Valencia — but clearly shows that the City isn’t living up to it’s own standard.

After documenting that 23rd and 24th streets, west of Vermont Avenue, and 36th Place, also west of Vermont Avenue, were not swept, I looked for an explanation from a number of officials, including the ticketing officers themselves, the Street Maintenance division and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Valencia provided two examples of charts that sweeper truck drivers use when on their routes, but that didn’t explain why certain segments of the routes weren’t swept at all.

See the first and second submitted charts (PDF)

THE VICTIM

Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Groot lives in a four-bedroom apartment with five roommates — a sacrifice to save money in the economic recession.

“It’s kinda tight sometimes,” said the freshly graduated Occidental College alum.

Groot was one of those ticketed Sept. 3 along 24th Street, where a street sweeper never came.

“They have the man power to ticket you but they don’t have the man power to actually do the job,” he said.

I alerted Groot that I had captured video and spoken with “Officer Smith” the day of his ticket — video proof that the street sweeper had never come.

At about 10 a.m., the undercover video shows Smith printing out Groot’s ticket and responding to my questions about whether the City will be sweeping 24th Street that day.

“They’re supposed to — if they’re not then there’s an issue with them,” said Smith. “As a matter of fact, I did see him on the other side.”

But the sweeping truck didn’t visit 24th Street until the following week.

Groot contested the ticket, saying he had proof that the street was never swept, but the City told him it didn’t matter.

He also filed a secondary appeal with the bureau to review the case, but paid the $60 fine, and the $2 surcharge, on the Parking Violation Bureau’s Web site to avoid the fine doubling to $120.

He is still awaiting a response and reimbursement.

“I got ticketed, and I deserved it because I’m in the way of the street sweeping vehicle,” he said. “But if they are having a system that fines us, but isn’t following up on why they’re fining us, that’s a broken system.”

THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Kimmi Porter of the Department of Transportation, and a former parking Enforcement Officer herself, said over the phone Sept. 9 that she was leaving for vacation, but she was the only person who could answer this question. She’d be happy to give me an answer when she returned Sept. 29.

On Sept. 29, Porter said she was too busy for a 10-minute interview and was booked solid for another two weeks.

She finally agreed to an interview on Oct. 14.

“The purpose of the posting of the signs is so street maintenance and street services can go out and do the work and sweep … and clean the streets,” she said.

Porter added that the City ticketing people when streets aren’t being swept would be unethical.

“If street sweeping is not being done, they shouldn’t be ticketed. I agree with you on that,” she said.

“You can always talk to the area commander, she said, “but there’d still have to be a form of investigation before they can do anything in regards to a citation.”

Two days after the interview with Porter, I contacted the South L.A. area commander, who told me they couldn’t speak about citations, as Parking Enforcement passes them to the Parking Violations bureau after they are issued.

Porter told me that the City’s Street Services division would need to write and sign a letter admitting they didn’t sweep a given street in order for a ticket to be dismissed.

THE MONEY

Porter said the conception of many — that “it’s all about the money” to the City — is simply untrue.

“That’s why we do street cleaning,” she said. “We’re there to provide a service to assist street services — and in turn that just generates revenue.”

But the City of Los Angeles made $134 million last fiscal year from parking fines, a total that equates to about $250 per minute for all of 2008.

“Most citations are in relation to street sweeping,” said Selwin Hollins, assistant general manager of LADOT’s finance and administration division.

And the revenue from parking fines has increased “greatly” over the past few years, according to Hollins.

View the City’s 2008 budget (PDF)

But Porter said Parking Enforcement never cites cars when the streets aren’t swept.

“[They let us know] definitely before the time of the street cleaning,” she said.

THE SYSTEM

“It’s not at all a good system,” said Jonathan Willbanks, a senior at the University of Southern California. “They look for any reason to ticket you.”

John Sapone, head of Street Maintenance for the City, said there’s no need to tweak the language of the municipal code — because the people involved in the City’s cross-division communication do the right thing.

“No, [it’s not in the law]. It’s just a courtesy,” said Sapone.

But, despite the clear evidence to the contrary, Porter and Sapone both insist there’s no problem of miscommunication or unethical ticketing.

“It’s frustrating,” said Groot. “That’s basically the money I save for emergency expenses [gone]. It’s my buffer for the month.”

THE WORSENING SITUATION

Corruption in the local governments — because of the economic turmoil — seems to be harder to uncover than ever, further incentive NOT to fix a problem.

“It’s getting tough out there [for in-depth projects],” said Randy Paige, a general assignment reporter who specialized in investigative reporting before KCBS 2 dropped the investigative department for budget reasons. “We just don’t have this type of reporting anymore.”

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