Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




March 4 , 2010

Wrong, indefensible, and inexcusable. That’s the best way to describe the actions of the Dellums Administration surrounding what appears to be the unequal and outright discriminatory parking ticket practices city administrators put into effect in Oakland this summer and fall, tried to pretend they didn’t, and then blamed on the City Council.

Some history, in case, somehow, you missed all the recent outcry.

Last June, the City of Oakland was struggling to close a projected $83 million city budget deficit for the new fiscal year. As part of the budget package proposed by Mayor Ron Dellums and City Administrator Dan Lindheim, the City Council adopted an ordinance increasing parking ticket fees and parking rates across the city. Most remembered from that budget session was a decision by the Council to change the hours of parking meter operation from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. That caused such a citizen and business outcry that the Council later came back and rescinded it.

But according to the Oakland Tribune, city officials last summer also decided to step up what the Tribune called “aggressive ticketing” in an effort to pull in more money from parking tickets, including concentration on such violations as parking on the sidewalk or parking on the wrong side of the street (“Parking Ticket Dispute Rankles Oakland” February 25, 2010).

But during a session in late June at least two Councilmembers—Pat Kernighan and Jean Quan—and possibly a third—Jane Brunner—suggested that because sidewalk parking and wrong-way parking violations had been ignored in parts of Oakland for years, the City should start off with the issuance of courtesy notices for a short period of time—warnings that carry no fines—before moving on to parking tickets with fines in order to give residents a heads-up that they needed to stop the violations. They appeared to be particularly concerned that on certain narrow streets in these areas in some of the middle and northern Oakland hills areas represented by these three Councilmembers, residents were forced to park on the wrong side of the street because there was often no room for them to turn their cars around on the street to park the right way, and often parked on the sidewalk to keep from impeding traffic on their narrow street.

The issue before the city, therefore, was whether there might be a good reason for citizens doing wrong-way parking and sidewalk parking on narrow streets, a reason good enough that it should override the city’s ordinances against such practices.

A fair and equitable solution seemed simple enough. Oakland city officials could have held off on ticketing for those two offenses on narrow streets throughout the city while cracking down on such violations on all streets that were not narrow. (To be even fairer, of course, Oakland officials could have given out courtesy tickets for those two offenses all across the city so that citizens would have had a chance to adjust to the new enforcement regimen. But since the purpose of the stepped up enforcement was not for safety purposes, but only to raise money for the budget, city officials wanted to catch citizens by surprise so they could issue as many tickets as possible before drivers caught on and stopped committing the violations.)

Anyway, Oakland did neither. Instead, at least one official within the Dellums Administration—either on his own or at the direction of superiors—decided to single out two sections of the city for special, favorable treatment. On July 24, Oakland Senior Parking Enforcement Supervisor Ronald Abernathy issued the following memo to parking enforcement officials entitled “Courtesy Notices on 651 & 643 for Sidewalks & Parked the Wrong Way”:

“Please ensure that Courtesy Notices are placed on vehicles for Sidewalks and Parked the Wrong Way violations on 651 & 643 until further notice. We are currently forming a citizens/city Parking Committee to study the cause and the narrow street issues in these areas.” (The 651 and 643 numbers refer to the enforcement areas of Broadway Terrace and Montclair, what the San Francisco Chronicle rightfully described as “two of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods” in their February 25, 2010 article “Oakland Parking Ticket Policy Called 'Not Fair'”)

Meanwhile, the city proceeded with “aggressively enforcing” the wrong-way parking and sidewalk parking ticketing policies in all other portions of the city.

That dual enforcement policy continued at least between late July and early November when, according to City Administrator Lindheim in an explanatory email to the East Bay Express, “a memo was issued suspending enforcement of these violations in all areas pending finding a practical resolution of the balancing issue (enforcing a State vehicle code vs. the practical reasons why some people park on sidewalks or opposite sides of streets).”

(Note: some city parking enforcement officers contend that the wrong-way and sidewalk parking crackdown continued after November.)

However long it lasted, one has to take a step back to appreciate how blatantly discriminatory this policy was. Despite the fact that the concern about the wrong-way parking and sidewalk parking was about “narrow streets issues,” as Mr. Abernathy wrote in his July memo, the City of Oakland placed only non-fine, courtesy notices on cars violating those parking laws in the upscale Montclair and Broadway Terrace communities whether or not those violations actually occurred on narrow streets.

Meanwhile, City of Oakland traffic enforcement officers placed parking tickets on cars violating those same two city parking ordinances in all other areas of the city, even though they had been ignoring those violations in many of those areas for years, and even when violations in those other areas occurred on narrow streets.

That, my friends, is a textbook example of discrimination.

The San Francisco Chronicle article gave one example about how this policy worked in practice.

“On Outlook Avenue in East Oakland, residents told The Chronicle that parking officers blanketed a four-block stretch late last year. The streets are narrow there, too, as they are in Montclair. Luther Couch, 43, has lived on the block for 41 years. He said that nearly everyone on his block has been sideswiped, so parking on the sidewalk is a must. Nonetheless, he got a $100 ticket late last year for parking on the sidewalk.”

While Outlook Avenue is in the East Oakland hills on the southern side of Mills College, narrow streets in Oakland are by no means confined to the hills areas. One of the narrowest streets in the city, for example, is 76th Avenue in the area between International Boulevard and San Leandro Street in the heart of the East Oakland flatlands. The street is so narrow that even with cars parked on the sidewalk on both sides of the street, it can be difficult for one car to drive down the middle of the street between them.

But just as bad as the initial discriminatory parking ticket policy was the reaction of the Dellums Administration once the practice was brought to light.

City of Oakland Parking Director Noel Pinto told the Tribune that he learned of the dual enforcement policies at an August 7 meeting when informed of the details of the Abernathy memo by parking enforcement officers. According to the Tribune article, Pinto said “That's when we decided, 'No. This should apply to all of the streets in the city.'”

According to the Tribune, Mr. Pinto then said “he verbally instructed his staff members that the memo should apply across the city.”

Odd and left unexplained is why, if Mr. Pinto felt the original July 24 Abernathy memo was wrong and discriminatory, the Parking Director did not issue a new memo formally rescinding the discriminatory policy, but only relied upon verbal instructions.

Meanwhile, after members of the city’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) went to the press last week to complain about the practice (“I don't think we should do discriminatory enforcement in one area and then give (other) people courtesies” city parking officer Shirnell Smith told the Tribune), Mr. Lindheim sent an email to Bob Gammon of the East Bay Express denying that any discrimination ever took place.

“The allegations [of the SEIU) are incorrect, inaccurate, inappropriate,” Mr. Lindheim wrote to Mr. Gammon. “No discrimination took place in enforcement in parking generally, nor regarding parking on the wrong side of the street and on sidewalks.”

Mr. Lindheim then put the onus on the City Council, saying that Mr. Abernathy’s “initial memo was [written] to meet the council members request.”

“The only truthful statement [in the SEIU allegations],” Mr. Lindheim wrote to Mr. Gammon, “is there was a July memo to parking staff to issue warnings (technically ‘courtesy notices’ in the City's jargon) in two parking areas. The reason for the memo was that three Council members [Ms. Brunner, Ms. Quan, and Ms. Kernighan, presumably] made a particular request at a late June Council budget meeting to warn residents in areas of their districts where these violations had not previously been enforced of the new enforcement policy. At this same meeting, (and despite my own statement that I supported non-enforcement of these code sections) the representatives from Districts 6 and 7 [Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid] insisted on aggressive enforcement of these violations in their districts (apparently parking on sidewalks was a particular concern of theirs or their constituents).”

In response, Ms. Kernighan told the Tribune last week that in her request, there was no intent to establish a dual parking ticket policy in the city, where certain parking violations in certain geographic sections of the city would be given notices, while the same violations in all other areas of the city would be given parking fines. And, in fact, no evidence has been brought forth showing Council written or verbal statements that they called for such a dual geographical enforcement policy. But the point is, even if Councilmembers had suggested that the city adopt such a dual policy, it was the duty of the Dellums Administration to refuse to follow such a policy because of its discriminatory nature.

Finally, Mr. Lindheim told Mr. Gammon in his memo that “in early November, a memo was issued suspending enforcement of these violations in all areas pending finding a practical resolution of the balancing issue (enforcing a State vehicle code vs. the practical reasons why some people park on sidewalks or opposite sides of streets). Ultimately, the decision was to enforce on wide streets and not on narrow ones.” That, in fact, was what city officials should have done in the first place.

How can Mr. Lindheim be so certain—so quickly after the SEIU charges surfaced in the press—that no discrimination in parking enforcement took place in the last months of 2009? We don’t know, but if he has some proof, he ought to release that to the press and public, so that we can be as convinced as well.

We would have felt much better about Mr. Lindheim’s current explanations and protestations if he had been as forceful back in July when Mr. Abernathy first produced his discriminatory parking enforcement memo. That should have been rescinded in writing by top city officials, parking enforcement officers should have been informed—in writing—that such a dual geographic enforcement policy was discriminatory and should not be practiced under any circumstances, a follow up with a meeting with parking enforcement officers should have been held to make certain that they understood, and close monitoring should have been done to make sure they complied. We saw a two-Oakland policy during the Jerry Brown years and before, when some parts of the city got the benefits while other parts got the dregs. Quite frankly, we didn’t expect to see that resurface, in any form, under an administration headed by Ron Dellums.

COLUMNIST'S NOTE: Following the original writing of this column, an Oakland Tribune article was published in which City Administrator Dan Lindheim appears to be significantly changing certain of his assertions concerning the parking ticket controversy.

A Wednesday, March 4 Tribune article entitled "Oakland City Attorney: Questionable Parking Tickets Should Be Reversed" reads that in answer to questions by Councilmembers at this Tuesday's City Council meeting, Mr. Lindheim "said he and his staff have been investigating why the [original July 24 Ronald Abernathy] memo was written in the first place and whether unequal enforcement ever went into place." That is in direct opposition to what Mr. Lindheim wrote to Mr. Gammon of the East Bay Express in his email last week, in which the City Administrator said that the July 24 memo "was [written] to meet the council members request” and that "[n]o discrimination took place in enforcement in parking generally, nor regarding parking on the wrong side of the street and on sidewalks” as a result of that memo.

The conflicting explanations and assertions make the actions of the Dellums Administration in this matter even worse.