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D.C. Council members get defensive over traffic tickets

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D.C. Council members circled the wagons Wednesday to protect the city programs that issue traffic and parking tickets.

The session chaired by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) was described as a Joint Public Oversight Roundtable to discuss the Evaluation on Parking & Automated Traffic Enforcement Tickets issued this month by the D.C. Inspector General’s office.

“It’s important for the public to maintain trust in the city’s ticketing and enforcement practices,” Cheh said in her opening remarks.

“It’s clear that there are things that need to be improved,” Cheh said of the report. She then listed some of the concerns raised by D.C. residents, as well as those cited in the inspector general’s report:

  • Drivers, and parking enforcement officers, are confused about the policy governing parking at broken meters.
  • Street signs regulating parking are confusing, and sometimes conflicting.
  • Concerns have been raised about which driver gets the ticket when a speed camera focuses on several lanes.
  • Camera tickets are sometimes issued to vehicle owners even though the license plate didn’t match the vehicle photographed.
  • Photos sometimes accompany parking tickets, but not always.
  • What’s the policy governing the use and retention of parking violation photos?

The questions raised in the report issued by interim Inspector General Blanche L. Bruce went beyond that, but Cheh’s list would have been a good start for grilling the D.C. government officials responsible for supervising the programs.

Instead, Cheh and the other council members focused their ire on the inspector general.

Some things in the report “unnecessarily undermine confidence” in the ticketing programs, Cheh said.

“It’s a bad thing,” Cheh said, “simply to write a report for whatever PR purposes that unnecessarily undermine the public’s confidence and produce cynicism about the safety measures that we’ve taken.” This is before hearing any witnesses — either from the inspector general’s office or from the city bureaucracy — to discuss the report’s findings.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) also started off on the right foot: “Those who are governed want to be sure that they’re not governed arbitrarily.” There’s no better way to sum up the purpose of the inspector general’s report.

“When it begins to look like this is just a new way of getting revenue from the residents and non-D.C. residents to build our budget, then we start losing that nexus – that covenant – between the governed and the government. If that happens, Wells continued, the risk to the ticketing program’s credibility is that some people will say,  “I know we call it public safety, but – a wink and a nod – we’re really just generating revenue for the District of Columbia, and we’re going to budget on that,” becoming somewhat dependent on people breaking the law.

Council member David Grosso’s opening remarks suggested that he also understood the public’s concerns about traffic enforcement. Grosso (I-At Large) noted that at a council session in July, District Department of Transportation officials were asked what they were doing to resolve problems with street signs offering conflicting information about parking rules. “They said they had assigned two interns to do an assessment of the signs in the city,” Grosso recalled. “There needs to be a greater commitment. … This cannot continue.”

And in Bruce’s opening remarks, she too tried to focus on the report’s intent: “Informed dialogue on these issues is constructive and can help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of various District agency’s operations.”

She got a chance to make this damning statement about the efficacy of the District’s ticket-issuing programs:

“According to statistics from the Department of Motor Vehicles, one out of every three photo-enforced tickets adjudicated is dismissed.” The percentage is higher – 50 percent – for adjudicated parking tickets that are dismissed.”

Wow. That means that the tickets issued by D.C. enforcement agencies often can’t be sustained when challenged by the ticket recipient.

But apparently, judging by Cheh’s follow up questions, the key concern is the definition of “often.”

Cheh: The report “says ‘The reality is that the District often issues speeding tickets without conclusive identification of the violating vehicle.’ What does ‘often’ mean?”

Also of concern during the council members’ questioning was why the inspector general had chosen to examine the performance of the ticketing programs.

Wells: “Can you tell me what triggered — who made the request — for this report?”

Bruce: “We receive a number of complaints from citizens.”

Wells: “You want to explain why the distribution list included — I don’t know — Richard Shelby, the senator from Alabama? … Why did you distribute it among the members of Congress?

Bruce: “That’s our standard distribution list.”

Wells: Did you get any requests [for a study] from members of Congress?”

Bruce: “Absolutely not.”

Shelby is among the Republican members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which has oversight over D.C. government.

Grosso did use a portion of his oversight time to probe further into what was emerging as the central question about Bruce’s report: How in the world could enforcement programs producing several million citations a year possibly generate enough citizen complaints to merit a review by the D.C. inspector general?

Grosso: “You don’t have any knowledge of how many complaints you got – at all? Like, you don’t have a list of the complaints or a compilation, you know, that motivated you? … You must get complaints about stuff all the time, but you don’t do investigations into every single thing.”

Bruce: “Parking and ticketing has to be one of the number one complaints that the office of inspector general receives. We have not quantified that, but it’s on a regular basis. … It has to be within the top five complaints we receive.”

“What I’m trying to find out is simply why you decided to issue this report. … I’m just trying to get to the bottom of that.”

By the end of this oversight session, the outlook for strengthening the credibility and effectiveness of the traffic enforcement programs remained murky. But it should serve as a warning to watchdogs who think people should be able to fight City Hall.

See also
D.C. ticket programs mock traffic safety concerns

Location always important in placing D.C. speed cameras