By Austin Nolen
Three years ago, Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky published a surprising story: a Court of Common Pleas judge had “served justice on the Philadelphia Parking Authority,” along with its “sister agency,” the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication. Together, the two handle parking tickets in Philadelphia: the PPA writes them and the BAA hears drivers’ appeals. Philadelphia drivers have long criticized the two agencies for perceived unfairness, so when Judge Leon Tucker ordered the BAA to institute reforms to insure fairness for ticketed drivers, Polaneczky wrote “I think hell just froze over.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. The BAA asked Judge Leon Tucker to reconsider his ruling, and when he refused, declared the order impractical and appealed to a higher court. The case eventually settled when the city agreed to make new rules giving drivers a better chance to defend themselves at Bureau hearings, but years after the fact, the PPA is still writing the same flawed tickets. After Polaneczky wrote about the city’s plans to appeal, the story dropped out of sight. Now, The Declaration is revealing how a promising start to reform soured.
In spite of the general negative attitude Philadelphians have towards our city’s parking ticket system, knowledge about it is fairly limited. For instance, the website Fuck the PPA claims that “the PPA is a private corporation.” In fact, the “Authority” in Philadelphia Parking Authority refers to a specific form of government agency. In Pennsylvania, a municipal authority is an agency created by a local government for a specific purpose. The agency is technically a state, rather than local agency, and leadership is appointed, not elected, allowing the authority to function more like a business.
The PPA was originally created by the City in the 1950s, pursuant to a state law for creating parking authorities, to manage off-street parking. However, in 1982, the state legislature allowed the City to delegate other responsibilities to the PPA. Among these responsibilities was the management of on-street parking, and city government took advantage of these changes in 1983.
The stage was not fully set for our modern “Parking Wars” until 1988, however. That year, City Council created the BAA, removed the responsibility for hearing traffic ticket appeals from the Philadelphia Traffic Court, and transferred that responsibility to the new bureau. The Bureau operates as part of the Philadelphia Department of Finance, independent of the court system. The same 1988 ordinance also set the Bureau’s priorities, one of which was to “increase the collection of parking program revenues.”
The PPA issued two tickets to federal prosecutor Jim Pavlock during the winter of 2010-2011. Pavlock appealed both tickets and presented evidence that his car was not improperly parked for either ticket. He also disputed the PPA’s practice of only writing a block number on tickets, instead of identifying where the car specifically was parked. The Philadelphia Code requires that “the parking ticket shall also contain other sufficient information… to inform the person of the nature, date, time and location of the violation alleged,” but BAA officials told Pavlock to that ticket writers weren’t trained to do that, and that he should “take it up to the Court of Common Pleas.”
When Pavlock took the BAA’s advice, Judge Tucker dismissed the tickets and issued the ruling that Polaneczky described as “hell freezing over.” He required the BAA to reform their hearing practices in four specific ways. The agency would have to create procedures to call ticket writers for testimony at hearings; to determine whether or not a ticket provided sufficient indication of a location; to throw out the ticket if not verified by the ticket writer; and if an appeal was denied, to inform the driver of the specific reasons for the denial. Despite BAA’s mandate to review tickets in a neutral manner, the BAA was represented in this initial stage by lawyers from the PPA.
City officials appealed, the case went into mediation and ultimately terminated when Pavlock and the city reached a settlement. In return for an agreement to create new regulations for ticket hearings, Pavlock agreed to drop his case and for Judge Tucker’s original order to be dismissed.
A New Day, a New BAA?
The new hearing regulations read like a victory for fairness in the city’s parking ticket system. Finalized in Spring 2013, they address three out of the four points Pavlock raised, requiring ticket writers to be cross-examined under certain circumstances, a review of whether the ticket has sufficient location information, and written conclusions for the final decision of the BAA. However, The Declaration‘s investigation shows that, in practice, little has changed.
Over 70% of tickets written in August 2013 and 2014 for parking in an improper place (as opposed to offenses such as expired meters or registrations) failed to provide more information about where the car was actually parked than a block number and a side of the street, according to data obtained from the PPA. This despite the fact that the new regulations were created specifically to address this issue. The PPA did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The percentage of flawed tickets may remain so high because the BAA has also continued its refusal to throw out those tickets. In 2014, the only local entity perhaps more hated than the parking establishment, Comcast, appealed 195 tickets issued to its local fleet. When the BAA upheld most of the tickets, Comcast appealed to court, claiming most of the tickets didn’t contain a sufficient location. In spite of the new regulations specifically created to deal with location issues, the BAA argued in court (once again represented by PPA attorneys) that Comcast’s interpretation of the law was “impractically narrow.”
Though Pavlock’s case did not effect a major transformation in the way tickets are handled in Philadelphia, the scales have tipped slightly in the direction of fairness. The employees who hear appeals are as lawless as ever, but at least the formal rules are now fair, and the Pavlock settlement requires that appellants receive copies of those rules.
You can view the (relatively) new parking ticket hearing regulations here.