“You can’t fight city hall.”
That’s how a 19th-century bit of wisdom goes. Not one to allow some old proverb to stand in my way, I’ve been giving it a try and am pleased to report that it’s simply not true. You really can battle the municipal monster. You might even win. But here in the City of Salt, it takes a ton of time. And it’s expensive.
I previously chronicled in this space [“Guilty, Please,” Jan. 11, 2012, City Weekly] my misadventure on a bicycle while crossing a downtown sidewalk to reach a bike rack. In a tiny slice of Zion, that maneuver—which cars and motorcycles can do legally to access parking lots and garages—is verboten for pedaled vehicles. In a poorly defined, nonsensical chunk of downtown, that particular sin is “marked” by a handful of small, randomly scattered, poorly worded signs mounted almost invisibly—high up and backward on poles bearing other traffic signs. Most people have no idea the law exists.
But the police do.
When I wrote that piece, I was trying to lose in justice court so I could appeal to a higher one with power to overturn the ordinance. The judge in district court did, in fact, rule against the city’s claim that my case didn’t have merit and would have allowed my appeal to be argued on constitutional grounds. I may have even won, but a new judge was assigned and a busy workload prevented me from adequately preparing, so I paid the $50 fine and moved on with life.
Larry Long, a criminal defense attorney who was willing to help, was a delightful person to get to know. He’s had numerous firsthand experiences observing the current assembly-line legal system crank out easy convictions by riding roughshod over less-wealthy, poorly represented defendants who are routinely overcharged for crimes and then conned into accepting unfair plea deals. But that’s another story for a different reporter.
Another reason I didn’t fight in court is that a couple of people on the Salt Lake City Council told me that the current absurd sidewalk bike law would be scrapped in upcoming changes to the city’s master plan. So far, no action on that one, however.
I recently ran into the cop who cited me. Typical of Chief Burbank’s force, the officer’s a nice guy who essentially apologized for writing a ticket for a silly infraction. He was just following orders.
I’ve also run afoul of city hall on two other counts. One was for being two days late getting a license-renewal sticker on my parked car that was waiting for a part to pass inspection. Since then, I’ve discovered from others that parking enforcement seems to be running a special shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sting. They apparently send meter maids (and guys) into certain residential areas at the beginning of each month. From what I can tell, they target the lower-income neighborhoods where there’s lots of on-street parking. In more genteel areas, you’re probably safe, but near Liberty Park, I witnessed one “maid” write two tickets in less than three minutes.
The city, by the way, denies everything I claim here.
You can’t contest such citations at no cost in justice court, but must take your case to small-claims court, where it will cost you between $60 and $258 just to be heard. Makes a lot of sense to fight a $37 ticket, huh?
Besides, it’s probably pointless. I know another hapless citizen, an articulate and intelligent fellow named Mark Stewart, whose car happens to be his home right now. His sticker was stolen from his plate (thieves use them to appear licensed themselves), and he got two early-month “failure to display” citations within 13 hours. Judge John Baxter gave Stewart the privilege of paying both.
Then it was my turn for “justice” on another matter. During this summer’s Utah Arts Festival, I parked in a space that looked legal. Upon exiting the car and looking beyond the items from a yard sale sprawled across the park strip, my girlfriend spotted a fire hydrant far from the curb. Since it was 16 feet away (I paced it off), I thought, “It’s more than 10 feet away (a factoid stuck in my head from the driver’s exam) so it must be OK, especially since the curb isn’t painted red, as it is by the hydrant near my house.”
It turns out the city doesn’t paint curbs anymore. When I told this to Fire Chief Kurt Cook, he voiced concern and said he’d look into it since it could easily hamper firefighters if they can’t access hydrants blocked by cars. I guess the chief then somehow got religion—the prevailing doctrine that the city’s more interested in generating money these days than in livability or public safety—and he won’t return calls.
All it would cost is the paint, and those curbs could be repainted by folks working off community-service hours. But doling out citations is certainly far more profitable.
Another lucrative fundraiser from Revenue Ralph & the Ticketers is expanded hours for downtown parking. This brings in more fees and fines, so it must be good for our town, right?
Not for establishments like Cinegrill, which, after 20 years, will soon be moving from its downtown location (344 S. 300 East) because its clientele doesn’t want to feed user-unfriendly e-meters until 8 p.m. Other businesses are suffering, too. I guess the city doesn’t consider sales-tax revenue to be as “dependable.”
If my experiences are any indication, you really can fight city hall. But it’ll probably be a huge net loss. They’ve nicely rigged it that way.
Jim Catano is a freelance writer and editor.