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Let Time Set the Fine: Rewrite Parking Rules So We Have a Chance

Friday July 25, 2003

Getting a parking ticket in Berkeley is the psychological equivalent of being mugged by your local government, the same institution that collects a percentage on every dollar you spend within city limits. It’s a twice-inflicted wound because often when shopping you’re victimized by circumstances beyond your control. For example, you’re patronizing our downtown restaurants. The waiter, not wanting to intrude on your conversation, takes an extra few minutes before delivering your check. Then bam, when you get to your car there’s a parking citation on your windshield that exceeds the cost of your lunch. Suddenly, you realize you have been playing with a stacked deck. It’s next to impossible to have lunch and conduct business within the restricted time allotment of one hour in Berkeley. As they say in Las Vegas, the house always wins. In this case, it’s the entrenched bureaucracy in city hall where fringe benefits such as pensions and early retirement come to a whopping, additional 40 percent of a starting salary. It also comes with a guaranteed lifetime employment backed by powerful, public employee labor unions. 

Our City Council by a 7-1 margin (kudos to Betty Olds for her lone, dissenting vote) increased parking fines by 33 percent. Mayor Tom Bates, in a state of inexplicable euphoria, wanted a hike of 40 percent. This was done on the pie in the sky misinformation that the city of Berkeley would take in an extra $2.5 million on an annual basis. This projection is fraudulent and absurd on several counts. 

At any given time, 33 percent of the parking meters are dysfunctional, inaccurate and jammed. I got this information from three of the technicians who collect the money from the meters. The antagonism among Berkeley residents will intensify with the city’s exorbitant parking fines. Many will flock to the local malls (El Cerrito and Emeryville) where parking is free and panhandling is minimal. Thus, revenue to the city of Berkeley will decline, not increase. Also, vandalism against parking meters, which is rampant in the university areas, will rise to the level reminiscent of guerilla warfare. More police surveillance will be needed. 

The five new parking enforcers that Mayor Bates wants to hire will each have a starting salary of $60,000 (adding fringe benefits). After five years and if you’re 55 years old, you can retire on 60 percent of your salary. Wow. Tell that to a teacher with a master’s degree applying to the Berkeley Unified School District or a journalist writing for a local newspaper.  

Years ago I got a parking ticket at Yosemite National Park during the Christmas season and I kept it as a cherished souvenir. It was called a courtesy tag and was issued by none other than Smokey the Bear. There was no fine but a gentle admonition to observe parking rules so that Smokey and his wildlife friends could exist in harmony with Homo sapiens and their gas guzzlers. 

Obviously, Berkeley is not programmed for courtesy tags, but let’s use our imagination. Redesign and calibrate our parking meters so that fines are determined by the expired time on the meter. A corollary would be a speeding ticket. You pay according to the number of miles over the posted speed limit. Go five miles over and the traffic fine is modest. If the radar catches you going 85 miles on the Bay Bridge, you pay a heftier fine. Likewise in parking; every minute over the first five minutes of expiration on the meter, it’s one dollar per minute with a maximum of $100 for the first offense. So, let the time determine the fine. At least it’s a start to make our parking enforcement gentler, kinder and most important of all, it lessens the seething resentment of the motorist and makes things appear morally more equitable. 

Here’s how this program would work. Instead of hiring five parking enforcers at $60,000, hire 10 at $30,000. Divide the work force into those who give “The Berkeley Bear Courtesy Tag” and those who write regular citations. The courtesy tag on the car would indicate that a parking violation has already occurred. It would make it a lot easier and less stressful to write the ticket since it establishes that the motorist was initially warned (an equivalent to his Miranda rights) and treated with deference. 


Dennis Kuby is a Unitarian Minister and resident of Berkeley since 1967. He directs the local Salon group.