Ticket Masters : Courts: Hearing officers at city's experimental Parking Citation Adjudication Office on the Westside help resolve disputes in a low-key atmosphere.

Bob Pool - Los Angeles Times

February 16, 1995

First, Edda Shurman Witt had to find a place to park.

The spaces out front along Pico Boulevard were all taken. In back, Vidor Drive was reserved for neighborhood residents with permits. And for emphasis, a white parking enforcement car was circling the block like a buzzard waiting for something to die.

Witt was in West Los Angeles the other day to fight a parking ticket, not to get one.

She was on her way to the city's new Parking Citation Adjudication Office to argue that she didn't deserve the $30 ticket she got for parking next to a Westwood curb on street-sweeping day.

The nine-month-old parking ticket complaint center and its seven hearing officers have taken the place of Municipal Court judges for motorists who contend that the parking meter was broken or the red-painted curb was too faded or the no-parking sign was obscured.

The arbitration service was created after a 1993 state law decriminalized parking tickets. Until now, the office at 9911 W. Pico Blvd. has been run as an experiment.

But the city Department of Transportation has plans to open two more centers--one this summer in Downtown Los Angeles and the other sometime after that in the San Fernando Valley.

"At first a lot of people didn't know what to expect," acknowledged Ed Roes, the administrator in charge of the hearings. "But this is less intimidating than going before a judge. It's more of a relaxed setting."

Things were friendly enough in Hearing Officer Alex Rabrenovich's glass-walled room when Pamela Moore showed up to explain why her car should not have been towed from in front of her Los Angeles home.

Her brother had just given her the 1976 Chevrolet, said Moore, who works in telemarketing. She was in the process of registering it in her name when it was seized. And no, she was unaware that the Chevy had acquired 13 unpaid parking tickets--$693 worth--when she took it from her brother.

Rabrenovich, who was a city Planning Department contract administrator before volunteering for arbitration duty, was sympathetic. He said he would relieve her from responsibility for the tickets--keeping her brother on the hook--if Moore could prove that she had taken possession before it was towed. Repair bills in her name could prove it, he said.

Moore brightened when she remembered buying a new muffler for it. Rabrenovich urged her to go home and get the receipt. She thanked him profusely when he agreed to postpone his ruling until she could return with the invoice.

About 50% of those who contest their tickets win, said Barbara LaRue, the adjudication center manager. Losers sometimes stalk out of the hearing rooms breathing fire.

"One man came out and threw a chair and we had to have him escorted out," LaRue said. Another man--a car rental company manager--was arrested twice for screaming outbursts during hearings into $2,000 worth of unpaid parking tickets racked up by his customers.

Hearing Officer Daren Perlstein, a former Community Development Department analyst, said he has been harassed over the phone and sued in civil court by motorists angered by parking ticket rulings.

Some excuses--and some locations--pop up regularly, he said. The most common excuse: "I had my flashers on." The most often ticketed spot: Outside the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center emergency room in Woodland Hills where illegal parking in a handicap parking zone draws a whopping $330 citation.

"We all get them, at least once a week," Perlstein said of the hospital citations. "I've personally seen 10 or 15 since I started last May."

Hearing officers are inclined to dismiss the citations if motorists bring in their emergency room paperwork, he added.

Those unhappy with a decision have 20 days to appeal the ruling to municipal courts in Downtown Los Angeles, San Pedro, West Los Angeles and Van Nuys. About 40% of motorists who pursue their cases there end up winning.

But a relatively small number of Los Angeles drivers bother to fight parking tickets.

Last year, only 1% of the 2,723,279 citations issued by the city's 490 traffic officers were contested, said Tom Pucalski, transportation department statistician. Some tickets were dismissed immediately by the city's Parking Violations Bureau after motorists' complaints about such problems as broken meters were investigated.

The adjudication center conducted 8,985 hearings between April and December. Another 5,118 motorists protested their tickets to arbitrators in writing without appearing in person. And 4,870 others failed to show up for their Pico Boulevard hearings: They automatically lost their cases.

But winners get their parking fines--which range from $15 to $330--mailed back within a month. And losers can sometimes work out a deal to make installment payments on large accumulations of fines. That means some motorists are able to retrieve impounded autos after 60% of the outstanding fines are paid.

Officials have not tallied the cost of running the arbitration service so far. But they speculate that it will easily be covered by court system savings. In the past, parking fine revenues were shared with Municipal Court, said John Afford, a transportation department accountant.

Last year the city collected $87.4 million in parking fines. After various agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles were paid for enforcement-related assistance, the city netted $66.4 million, Afford said.

With that kind of money involved, some would think that the city could afford to look the other way when drivers are ticketed for illegally parking outside the Pico Boulevard parking ticket office. It doesn't, though.

"We have people jump up in the middle of a hearing and say they've got to run out and move their car," said John Fick, assistant adjudication office manager. "We've had people who get a ticket while they're here fighting a ticket."

One man detained by police for creating a disturbance after a hearing ended up with his car being towed at 4 p.m., when the boulevard's "no stopping" regulation went into effect.

To ease the problem, the city now arranges for $1 parking in an adjoining garage.

Edda Shurman Witt didn't know that as she circled the block in her Ford Tempo, however. When a space on the opposite side of the boulevard opened up, she parked and hurried in to argue her case.

It took Hearing Officer Kevin McNeely, a former community development staff member, only five minutes to rule on her street-sweeping parking violation.

A photograph taken by Witt showed that the branches of a magnolia tree obscured the part of a sign that warned against parking on Ashton Avenue on Thursday mornings when she was ticketed there on Oct. 13. A photograph taken a month later by a city investigator showed that the tree limbs had been neatly trimmed.

"I find this credible. Your photo is stamped with the date on the back. This is good evidence," McNeely said after inspecting her snapshot. "It certainly looks like two-hour parking to me. I find you not liable."

Witt, a travel consultant from Brentwood, explained that she didn't go to the trouble of fighting her ticket just because of the $30 fine. "It was a matter of principle. I just have a sense of justice," she said.

McNeely got in the last word, though.

"We'll validate if you parked in the structure," he told her. "Parking's tricky around here."

-Bob Pool