A local realtor has blown Wilmington's parking problems wide open in her more than year-long quest to appeal a single parking ticket she claims she received in error.
"I'm not wrong, and that's just it. If I was wrong, I would pay it. I'm not wrong," she said. "There's an expectation that a certain number of people who get these tickets are going to cave, they're just going to roll over, and they're going to pay it," said Carol Arnott-Robbins.
She first appeared on WDEL months ago to share her story of incorrectly receiving a parking ticket on Market Street in Wilmington in 2018, knowing she's not alone. She dropped her grandson off at school at 7:30 a.m. and met someone at the Market Street Starbucks. A few minutes before meter collections began, Arnott-Robbins said she put six quarters, or an hour-and-a-half's worth of money, in the meter.
"I had gotten a ticket at 8:18 a.m., which no way, it's not possible. I honestly thought there's a mistake, so I sent a nice letter to the city, I sent the ticket back," she said. "It's obviously a mistake."
She even recommended the city review its own surveillance cameras to show her putting money in the meter.
"I get a very prompt response saying, 'Pay the ticket or request a trial.'"
As someone who has the flexibility and freedom to make her own schedule, she requested a trial in March of 2018. To date, that trial still hasn't happened; she's due in court Friday.
"I hear nothing until May of this year...since I didn't hear from them, I thought they realized it's their mistake," she said. "I get two pieces of communication in May of 2019, over a year later. One is I now have additional fines because my $40 ticket is now a $100 ticket; I'm being threatened with towing or booting my vehicle without further notice," she said. "Because they said I hadn't responded."
That same day, she received a letter saying her trial had been scheduled--proof she, in fact, had responded.
"I went into this thinking: 'This is not just Carol's problem, this is systemic. I'm not the only one who's had this ticket, this situation here."
Arnott-Robbins filed Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to learn how many meters are in the city of Wilmington and how many were broken along Market Street, and how many were repaired for the month of February 2018.
"One of two things is happening here--either the meter was broken or somebody's lying," she told WDEL. "And I'm not lying."
In response to her FOI, Arnott-Robbins received a message from the senior assistant city solicitor who told her there's 823 meters, 160 are "smart" and 663 are coin-operated meters, but the remainder of her request went unanswered.
"'The city does not have documents responsive to these requests; the city does not maintain an electronic database of such information," she read the city's reply.
Arnott-Robbins eventually learned the documents do exist, from another solicitor in the office. She received several Excel spreadsheets, showing every broken meter in the city of Wilmington.
"I don't know whether [the solicitor] was simply misled," said Arnott-Robbins.
Through the data, Arnott-Robbins learned about a smart meter reported broken in February which wasn't repaired until May.
"So what happened to all the people who were putting money into that meter between February and May? Were they getting parking violations?"
A system 'rigged' against the driver
Arnott-Robbins teamed up with AAA Mid-Atlantic to seek reforms to the city's plagued parking system, one described as "broken" by AAA's public relations manager Ken Grant.
"I can go out on Market Street right now and can tell people who have issues because they're out taking pictures of the meter when they put money in the meter," said Grant.
When you appeal a ticket in the City of Wilmington, the amount of time it takes to go through a full appeal is more than a year, in some cases, as Arnott-Robbins experienced. Those who receive parking tickets in the City of Wilmington and seek to appeal the ticket are supposed to get a response from the Civil Appeals Office within 30 days.
"That rarely happens," said Grant. "Sometimes, you'll get that response that says, 'No, we're denying the appeal, do you want to take it to JP Court,' and from there, according to that, the average length of time from the time the ticket's issued to the time the ticket's resolved is over 400 days. In one case, it went over 800 days."
When one appeals a ticket, all fine accruals and fees--as well as towing and booting--are supposed to be put on-hold, but at the one-year mark, something strange happens, Grant learned.
"In the system, it flips a switch, like a timer going off, ding! Now, you owe over $100, and we can boot you," he said. "Things that we thought were glitches in the system, for example, people continuing to receive notices that they had not responded to a ticket, even after they appealed, that appears that is the system now," said Grant.
"Case after case, we're seeing people saying, 'here's my notice that I have 15 days to appeal to JP Court,' which is postmarked up to seven to 10 days after the date on the letter, so it's almost as though the whole system seems to be rigged against the driver.
"We asked, how many people have filed that appeal, [and did] not receive a response back one way or the other as far as the appeal goes, but did get the automatic notice, 30 days later, saying, 'you haven't responded to this ticket, you now owe additional money,' and either out of frustration or a misunderstanding, they said, 'Oh OK,' wrote a check, for now, not $40 but $60 and sent this into the city, even though they did appeal."
This begs the question--how often does this happen? That's when AAA Mid-Atlantic got more heavily involved. Through a series of Freedom of Information requests filed by Grant on behalf of his employer, he obtained scores of pages of data on tickets issued and appealed, vehicles towed.
The data shows in January 2012, 5,000 people got tickets, and 169 appealed those tickets. It's unclear whether the remaining thousands paid their tickets. The data also showed some discrepancies. For example, roughly 2,000 people had filed appeals, yet 5,000 appeals were granted.
"We called the city legal department to kind of ask 'what's the deal here?'" said Grant. "What we were told right away is: 'we can't interpret anything for you, all we do is provide the data,' click."
In 2013, there are also more appeals granted than tickets issued. In years 2014-2016, the data shows appeals filed for and granted were fairly consistent.
In 2018, those numbers spike significantly. Wilmington's director of finance Brett Taylor told Grant, while he was deputy director, he dug into the numbers and realized a massive backlog of appeals.
"What's interesting though is in 2019, [I] filed a follow-up FOI, to get some of these numbers again...some of the numbers they provide--July, August, September, seem to be a little bit different than what they were provided in 2018."
"One documents shows 1,002 versus 1,209--that's kind of a big discrepancy...when you ask, they just go, 'ah I don't know.'"
AAA Mid-Atlantic also took a closer look at how Wilmington fared compared to other cities, some of similar size, some larger. Wilmington issues between 50,000 to 70,000 tickets issued annually. But towing and booting equals about nine percent of the population.
"Compared to D.C. one of the most aggressive areas...no other city even comes close," said Grant about his non-scientific analysis.
At $40 per violation, Wilmington's ticket prices are above most average cities on the East Coast, including Washington, D.C.
The Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal for the City of Wilmington shows the city plans to engage in improved collections to the tune of $300,000.
"This was a contract...it's supposed to be with this company Conduent...to go after everybody that they believe still owes the city money for the past seven years. As I said, there's really poor record-keeping on the city's part. For years, even though the written policy is to provide some kind of written response to an appeal, they weren't, and so, you can have however many hundreds of people sitting there saying, 'I filed an appeal, I didn't hear anything back or I called and was told everything is fine, and then this collection agency shows up, and the collection agency can track people down anywhere in the country."
So, appealing a ticket received in Wilmington, hearing nothing in a year's time, then moving to Los Angeles just means the collection agency could come after alleged violators in California.
"People were told if you don't hear anything back from [the city], assume it went through," he said. "We have several cases where people would call the city to find out what was going on, be told one thing, then get something in writing, saying another thing."
Problems with Riverfront parking kiosks
Parking on Saturday and Sundays is free in Wilmington. Parking is also free before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m. on weekdays. But AAA Mid-Atlantic discovered parking kiosks on the Wilmington Riverfront were wrongly collecting money all the time, from the moment they were first installed until the problem was fixed in September of 2018.
Those meters illegitimately collected $20,705.88 during off-hours, Grant found.
"When I pointed this out to them, within a few days, they had reprogrammed the kiosks so that now if you show up on a weekend or after 6 p.m. or before 8 a.m., it won't even accept the money, it won't even accept coins--it will literally block you from putting quarters in. So it begs the question--why wasn't that done at the beginning?"
Signs on those kiosks also stated parking was enforced Monday through Saturday, despite Saturday being a "free day" for parking city-wide.
"I pointed this out to them last November of 2018. June of 2019 is when they finally fixed those signs," Grant said.
He thinks the city should take a closer look at how much money is normally collected in an average month from parking meters and offer that amount of free parking along the Riverfront while still enforcing parking time limits.
"Why do we have this parking system to begin with? AAA would argue your first priority is public safety. Secondly, it's traffic flow, when you have limited parking spaces that's what you need to keep things going through."
Parking tickets a serious moneymaker
Year after year, the city plans to collect $3 million in parking fee violations, or a total of 7 percent of the city's budget.
"That's just outrageous that a city our size should have a $3 million budget for this," said Arnott-Robbins.
Grant said the city is relying far too heavily on parking fees as a funding source.
"AAA best practices recommend that fines and fees from parking tickets should not be a revenue stream because it opens up situations like this...essentially, it should be a system that pays for itself. Any additional money coming in ought to go back into the system to improve equipment, pay for manpower, that sort of thing," he said.
He pointed to a battle AAA fought with the General Assembly in creating the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which devotes all money in the fund solely to transportation purposes, spare an emergency and a two-thirds majority vote.
"The city of Wilmington doesn't seem to be investing some of that $3 million back into the technology. When you look at the kinds of meters you have in Wilmington, those are ancient, old, decrepit, falling apart," said Grant.
Issues with Towing
Whenever a car is towed in the city of Wilmington, the owner of the vehicle is supposed to be notified via postal-delivered mail, according to city code and the city's contract with the towing company. But that's not happening consistently, Grant found.
"According to the contract, once the tow company has the vehicle for 30 days, if no one's come to claim it, then they can keep it," Grant said.
In its winning bid, First State Towing offered to charge nothing for the tow from the driver, but would tack on $20 per day for vehicle storage, starting on the fourth day after written notice has been issued.
Numbers analyzed by AAA Mid-Atlantic showed the tow company had kept 1,000 vehicles annually.
Further frustrating the matter, getting data from the towing company has proven difficult.
"'After a diligent effort to locate documents responsive to these items, we don't have any material responsive to your request. The city has never received this information from our vendor, and working forward, we are working to ensure that we receive monthly submissions about vehicles sold at auction,'" Grant read the city's response.
When it comes to obvious violations of the contract, Grant said the city's response has been:
"'We'll just let it play out.'"
The one-year contract expires in December. Councilman Vash Turner has requested the towing company come before council at an upcoming meeting.
"Before a person can get their vehicle back from First State Towing, they first have to go to the city and pay a $25 release fee, plus whatever they owe," said Grant. "They would give you a slip, you would take that to First State Towing, First Start Towing says, 'Ok now because we've had your vehicle for 10 days, you owe us $200.'"
WDEL requested an interview on this subject one month ago on August 16, 2019. At that time, city spokesman John Rago said he'd be happy to talk about the ticketing and towing reforms that have been underway "aside from anything AAA is claiming."
"We have a meeting with the mayor on Tuesday to get sign-off on the reforms we hope to soon announce. AAA knew we were changing our systems because we told them in June. They decided to issue their news release anyway claiming they were tired of waiting for some action. Sorry we didn’t move fast enough for AAA, but we are revamping things and will soon announce publicly what we doing," said Rago in an email.
WDEL and Rago never connected further on the issue.
Empty threats: City threatens arrest over unpaid parking tickets
AAA Mid-Atlantic found the City of Wilmington's Office of Civil Appeals had been threatening to arrest people for unpaid parking tickets for years, between 2002 through 2018.
Job requirements for a civil appeals officer require no legal training.
"When you file your appeal, that's who it goes to," said Grant. "This is not about one individual, it's about a system, and this goes back 20 years. You have an office that is clearly in the executive branch of government, it's literally on the organizational chart right now sits in the mayor's office, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'wait how can someone in the executive branch...issue a [contempt of court] bench warrant for their arrest?'"
When Grant filed a FOI request asking for information on how many times the city has charged someone with contempt of court, the city's answer was it had no documents responsive to Grant's request because they "don't do that."
"So, for 16 years, they just threatened people," Grant said.
Grant said he brought the matter to the attention of the attorney general's office.
"There doesn't seem to be much oversight, and again, even city council members don't seem to be able to get answers to some of this stuff. It's messed up."
Change is needed
AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling for a review of the system as well as an ombudsman appointed to review cases. They would also like to see the city cancel its contract with First State Towing and review all booting cases.
"One piece of information that I've asked for multiple times...is how many times has the city had to reimburse someone for a bad boot. How many of those cases are there?"
Grant has never gotten a solid answer.
"Clearly, when the city does not enforce the state code nor the city code regarding the notification of motorists when their vehicle is towed, that's a violation, and we told that to them in a June 3 meeting...and the city has not responded to that," he said.
Reforms on the way
Hours before a Public Works and Transportation committee meeting Monday, September 17, 2019, where city council was scheduled to hear from AAA, the city issued a memo, saying reforms were being implemented to improve parking problems in the city.
At that meeting, city finance director Brett Taylor admitted the city's made mistakes.
"We are willing to make changes, make reforms to the parking area, and we think that there's a better way that we can manage it," he said.
In July, the city said it implemented a parking call center in an effort to provide better customer service, reduce wait times, and resolve issues surrounding parking in the city. That call center's number is 302.576.2620, and WDEL confirmed it's live.
"Wait times have been reduced dramatically and the level of customer service has improved just as dramatically," Tanya Washington, the mayor's chief of staff said.
The city said it also plans to upgrade all meters to make the Parkmobile app available within the next month after a recent expansion in the riverfront.
"Use of the app also provides the customer and the city with a record of the transaction, thus reducing the likelihood of decision-making by either the customer or city [being] disputed. The written record also helps resolve any errors made by the city or the customer," the memo said.
Over the next year, the city plans to replace dilapidated meters with kiosks.
Washington said in the memo that parking enforcement officers would also soon have in their hands state-of-the-art technology that will store information regarding data from kiosks and the Parkmobile app.
"The new devices will enable the [officer] to take photos of violations and print tickets with the photo displayed as part of the ticket. The new devices will also have GPS technology to pinpoint [officer] locations, location of vehicles, and to assist in mapping information as needed," the memo reads.
The city also hopes to simplify the cumbersome appeals process by allowing for an online option.
"Customers will no longer have to file an appeal in-person at the Redding City County Building or mail-in an appeal, although both of those options will still be available. In fact, for walk-in customers who do not have internet access, the Office of Constituent Services will assist them in filing their appeals," said Washington.
The city also hopes to implement a revised online citation/ticket payment system to eliminate customer surcharges for processing payment. The system would involve the use of text messages to keep customers informed of the process. They'll additionally explore allowing payment arrangements for outstanding tickets.
"Customers who adhere to a payment arrangement, which means not missing a payment, would eliminate the possibly of having their vehicle booted or towed," the memo said.
They also hope to consolidate appeals and are working with the Office of Constituent Services to bring processes together and ease delivery of services.
When it comes to towing, the city said it will issue requests for proposal in October for a new contract.
"The new contract or contracts will require the towing company to provide consistent and accurate information to the City and to the customer about a vehicle that is towed, such as the date it arrives at the towing facility, how long it was or will be stored, copies of notices sent to the customer to inform them that their vehicle has been towed, and the process for resolving debts and retrieving the vehicle. The required information to the customer will also include information about when a vehicle may be disposed of should a customer choose not to pay fines or fees owed and claim the vehicle."
Any failure to follow data collection stipulations or reporting and notification requirements would result in a termination of the contract.
Here's a memo, containing all of the city's planned reforms:
AAA said it's grateful the city is finally taking this issue seriously.
"On behalf of drivers throughout the region, AAA is grateful to the Purzycki Administration for carefully reviewing AAA's concerns and proposing significant reforms to make the parking, ticketing, appeals, booting, and towing processes more transparent, fair, and in compliance with state and city code," said Vice President of Public and Government Affairs, Cathy Rossi, in a written statement.
In many ways, Grant added, the "real work begins now."