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My near-miss parking ticket in downtown Tacoma: Is a ticket possible as soon as you put the car in park?

Post by Kathleen Cooper / The News Tribune on Feb. 1, 2011 at 11:17 am |
February 3, 2011 12:00 pm

I almost got a parking ticket yesterday in downtown Tacoma while sitting in my running car for five minutes while I sent an e-mail.

First, let me state unequivocally: I violated the law. My running car was in park along the curb at South 9th Street and Pacific Avenue, which is in the paid parking zone. I had an expired parking sticker from earlier in the afternoon on my window, and I did not even think to get out and pay 25 cents for a new one because I planned to sit there for less than five minutes while I e-mailed a news story to my editor.

And, ultimately, I did not get a ticket, but the parking attendant had written one before agreeing to void it. It’s that exchange I wanted to write about, because I think it shows a little less flexibility and discretion than I had thought was the norm.

Here’s what happened. Bear with me, because I want to make sure you all have the context. (My mother calls this “building the roadbed.”)

Around 3 p.m. yesterday, I stopped in at The Swiss to interview the owner there about another story I’m working on. Then I planned to head over to the convention center to write about the businesses at GoLocal‘s Tacoma Shift Happens event.

It’s possible to park near the Swiss and not pay, but I pulled in to the first spot I saw, popped a quarter into the machine, affixed my ticket and went about my work. About 15 minutes later I left, parked farther north on Market Street where it’s unpaid, 90-minute parking, and walked to the convention center. By this time, I had forgotten about the sticker, which expired around 3:30 p.m.

I left the convention center around 4:15 p.m. and swung over to a new restaurant on Tacoma Avenue and South 9th11th Street I hadn’t visited yet. I needed some iced tea and planned to write and e-mail my story from there. It’s also on the way to my son’s daycare, which is where I was headed as soon as I filed my story. But the restaurant didn’t have wi-fi, so I wrote my story while I had my drink, then headed down 9th Street toward the downtown Starbucks.

My initial plan was to park, buy another 25-cent ticket, run in to Starbucks and use their wi-fi. Another disclosure: I didn’t plan to buy anything at Starbucks. I drink a lot of coffee, and I buy at least one latte each day from Starbucks all over Tacoma but I never use the wi-fi. So I figured, this one time, it was OK for me to jump online without buying anything.

As I approached the Starbucks, I saw a curbside spot open right next to the building and thought, Great! I can just slam it in park, jump online, e-mail my story on Shift Happens then head to pick up my son.

While I was waiting for my computer to connect, I saw out my passenger window that a parking attendant was on the sidewalk. I could see that he or she was looking down the block, so I thought nothing of it. A few minutes passed, while I double-checked a fact in my story then e-mailed it to my editor. I closed my laptop just as I noticed the attendant at the front driver’s side of my car, writing a ticket.

I rolled down my window and said with surprise, “Are you ticketing me?”

She said yes, because my window sticker had “long expired.”

I agreed that it had, and I said I was sorry about that, but that it was from earlier in the day. I also said I was sitting there only for long enough to send an e-mail and I planned to leave at that moment. As evidence of that, I pointed out that my car was running and that I had moved my laptop to the passenger seat.

She said that the rule was that an expired sticker required her to write a ticket.

I said again that I understood that, but what I was asking for was some discretion. I said, “I’ve been sitting in my car. I saw you a few minutes ago and didn’t know that you were planning to ticket me. Couldn’t you have asked me what I was doing?” I would have popped out and bought another 25 cents worth of time if she had done that — I would have found that irritating, but I would have complied.

She then said she would find a way to void the ticket, but that it was my responsibility to make sure I had taken care of the parking. As I was about to agree, and thank her, she said:

“You can’t just homestead here. It’s your responsibility.”

I found that a little off-putting. As I drove away, I wrestled with whether to write about this, because I don’t think parking attendants’ jobs are easy. They’re out in the weather and hear excuses from people all day long. I’m sure some people are rude and disrespectful. But here’s the thing: I’m not rude nor disrespectful. And I’ve written a few stories already about the downtown parking system, so I know that one of the guiding principles is to “create a positive customer experience.”

And even though this wasn’t my intent, what if I had been checking e-mail before I got out to pay for parking? Are we really subject to a ticket the moment we put the car in park?

I called David Carr, the parking manager for the city, to get his take on my experience. I’ll let you know what he says.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Should I have gotten the ticket anyway? I know that many of you don’t like paid parking generally, but have you had any specific experiences, good or bad, that you would share? Please post a thoughtful comment below.

UPDATE, 1:04 p.m.: City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff tells me that parking staff has been instructed on “how to interpret and handle some of those discretionary situations.”

“To defend the attendant(s), they don’t know if (drivers have) been sitting there or parking for five minutes or 30 minutes,” he said. “I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a conversation. They’re instructed to use some discretion.”

UPDATE, 1:45 p.m.: David Carr just called. He said he had spoken to the parking officer involved and had a good conversation, and that this would be a learning tool.

He said parking staff members absolutely do have discretion. Here’s how he explained it:

“The training they have is, if they have the opportunity to interact with someone and make a positive interaction, do so. If you don’t have the comfort, make an observation and go on on your route and come back. Because if I observe you at 4:15 and make eye contact, and I come back at 4:30 and you’re still there, then the discussion is different.”

This makes sense to me. He also offered a possible explanation for the parking officer’s approach to me. Seeing that I had a sticker on my window, even though it was expired, shows I understood the system. Maybe I left it there intentionally to try to game it. (I didn’t, but I understand what he’s saying.)

As for why she didn’t try to talk to me at all, he said that was the missed opportunity.

“I’ve been saying this all along. But when (the officers are) out there, there’s some times where it’s challenging to write citations all day,” he said. “They’re being told by me to interact when they have the opportunity. If I was doing that all that time there might be times I wouldn’t want to.”

That I also understand.

Carr said he instructs his staff to minimize enforcement and emphasizes interaction.

“What I’m trying to do is shift away from an old culture to a new culture,” he said. Making eye contact is important. “I don’t want my staff to be the person to write a ticket to a dead guy.”

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