Undercurrents: Chron Writer Gets it Wrong on Oakland Parking Revolt

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:17:00 AM

An assertion in this week’s Chip Johnson column in the San Francisco Chronicle on Oakland City Council’s parking fee controversy (“Compromise on Oakland parking may be in works”) caught my attention, as Mr. Johnson’s writings sometimes do. 

As you probably already know, in an effort to bring in more revenue in order to balance its fiscal year 2009-10 budget in the midst of the economic downturn, the Oakland City Council passed several parking-related measures just before the summer break, raising the meter rates and fines and increasing the hours of parking meter operation. The measures resulted in what we in the media like to characterize as a “firestorm” of public criticism in Oakland, with calls coming from all over the city during the summer for the council to rescind its actions. Oakland City Council is currently considering what actions to take in response. 

In his column, Mr. Johnson attempted to describe the current situation facing the Oakland City Council and then wrote the line that attracted my attention. “Oakland,” he said, “is not the only Bay Area city to feel the financial crunch of a lingering recession, but their approach—to adopt across-the-board parking hikes—remains unmatched.” He then listed San Francisco and Walnut Creek as having tried alternatives to “across-the-board parking hikes,” including “test[ing] a program to charge premium prices for convenient on-street parking spots.” 

Mr. Johnson missed a city in his review, misstated his assumption, and therefore missed the lessons that might be learned from the Oakland parking problem. 

First and foremost, Oakland was not the only Bay Area city to consider “across-the-board parking hikes” this year. 

In a late March article in the Daily Planet, I wrote that “[w]ith almost a complete lack of controversy or public dissent, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a staff recommendation Tuesday night that will raise most parking citation fines $5 across the board, but significantly higher on University of California football game days. … The $5 increase is due to recent state legislative action to relieve California’s budget crisis, and all but 50 cents per violation of the increase will pass directly through to the state treasury.” 

Then, in late June, I wrote that “In order to balance the [city’s fiscal year 2009-10] budget, for the second time this year the [Berkeley City] Council raised across-the-board parking fines by $5 per citation. Fines for most overtime parking violations will jump from $35 to $40, while no parking zone violations will go from $56 to $61.” In that story, I added that “as part of its preparation for expected state cutbacks, the council will consider three other parking-related fee increases—raising the meter rate by 25 cents, adding meters to new areas, and a 15 percent residential preferred parking fee increase—in the coming weeks.” 

Two of those items—“Increase the parking rate by 25 cents to $1.50 per hour” and “Expand locations of Single-Space Parking Meters and Pay-and-Display (P&D) Stations to commercial parking areas in Districts 1, 2, and 3 that currently have time zones”—came before the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night of this week. 

Berkeley City Council therefore raised across-the-board parking fees-meter rates and fines—as well as added parking meters to non-meter areas over the course of the late spring and early fall of this year—yet, despite the fact that Berkeley residents are not known for their reticence or civic apathy, those actions generated none of the controversy that accompanied the Oakland increases. 

Why the difference? 

This is where taking only a superficial look at the results of local parking changes will get you to the wrong conclusion, as on the issue of across-the-board fee and fine increases—the issue that caught Mr. Johnson’s attention—there does not appear to have been any difference between the reactions in Oakland and Berkeley at all. And that appears to be because the “parking revolt” in Oakland may have not had anything to do with the across-the-board fee and fine increases. 

I’ll explain. 

The Oakland parking fees and fines issues first appears to have come before the Oakland City Council during the council’s June 16 meeting in three separate items, during the time when the council and the city administration were struggling to plug an $83 million budget deficit. During passage of an amendment to the city’s Master Fee Schedule, the meeting minutes indicate that in the course of considering changes in a 66 page Master Fee document, the Council ordered that “[t]he following fees will be brought back for introduction on June 30: Current On-Street parking meter rate increase $.50 to $2 per hour city wide...”  

At the same meeting, the council voted to continue the matter of across-the-board increases in meter violation fines—fines that are set by Oakland municipal code—to its June 30 meeting, but passed an ordinance increasing the across-the-board fines for California Vehicle Code-related parking violations as well as pushed the hour the city operates its parking meters from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

Although the minutes of the June 16 meeting show that there were several members of the public that spoke on other council items that night, only two persons spoke on the parking fee-related items: Oakland library advocate Patrick Camacho and East Bay News Service owner Sanjiv Handa (who speaks on almost every item at Oakland City Council). 

When the parking issues came up again for final passage at Oakland City Council’s June 30 meeting, only two individuals again spoke on the four separate items involved: someone named Sophie Vrabel (with whom I am not familiar) and Mr. Handa. 

Given the fact that Oakland City Council agendas are closely monitored by a significant number of individuals, the number of times (seven) over a spread of two public meetings that the Council agenda indicated “something” was being done in Oakland that would raise the cost of parking, and the sparsity of public comment, one can reasonably conclude that if Oakland residents weren’t happy about the across-the-board parking rate/fine increases passed in June, they weren’t upset enough about them to pitch a fit. And none of the bloggers who keep close tabs on public comment in Oakland appear to have raised an issue about this in June. Echa Schneider, for example, the V Smoothe blogger, posted a June 28 item in which she outlined the differences between the mayor’s and council’s budget proposals, and of 25 comments, none of her readers mentioned the parking fee/fine increases as a problem. 

Why, then, such an explosion of anger and protest after the fact? 

This is just a guess, but it would appear that Oakland’s parking meter two-hour extension (from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) simply got overlooked by the public in all the fine print and the detail of the city’s scramble to close its budget deficit. And that’s how the City of Oakland’s handling of this situation--the city, not the citizens--may have differed from Berkeley. 

While the City of Berkeley did not propose extending parking meter hours earlier this year, it did propose something similarly controversial: adding meters to selected areas of the city that currently have no meters, but only one or two-hour limits. The meters the city proposed to be placed were those coin-operated machines taken out when the city added the pay-and-display (P&D), credit card-accessible meter stands in many areas. A review of Berkeley city staff’s report from Tuesday night’s City Council meeting shows what happened. 

“In February 2009,” the Berkeley staff report reads, “after the new P&D stations were installed, staff returned to Council for approval to proceed with Phase 4 of the Meter Expansion Program: installation of 832 single-space meters. In response to public comments on the plan, Council directed staff to meet with neighborhood residents and businesses in the specified commercial districts to gather additional feedback and input on meter locations. These meetings were held in June and July in the three areas to discuss proposed locations, answer questions, and solicit comments and recommendations. As an outcome of these meetings, approximately 420 parking spaces (50 percent fewer than the 832 originally specified) have been identified to install single-space parking meters in commercial areas with existing timed-parking zones.” 

A fair reading of this report is that the Berkeley City Council—perhaps with staff input—anticipated the controversy over adding parking meters to unmetered areas and, therefore, ordered special public meetings to spread the information about the proposed changes and get public input. As a result of that input, the City drastically modified its proposal, cutting back 50 percent of the proposed new meters. As a result of that outreach and those changes, the proposal received minimal citizen complaint when it was approved by the council on Tuesday night. 

There is no evidence that the City of Oakland did a similar outreach over the far more controversial meter hour extension plan. And while it would be unfair to accuse city officials of deliberately hiding the proposal, Oakland did not go out of its way to publicize those changes in the agenda items or the ordinances approved last June.  

The agenda title for that item reads as follows: “Recommendation: Adopt An Ordinance Amending Oakland Municipal Code Section 10.48.010 

“Schedule Of Parking Fines” To Increase California Vehicle Code Parking Fines, And Amending O.M.C. Section 10.36.050 “Parking Meter Indication That Space Is Illegally In Use", To Increase The Parking Meter Hours, And Amending O.M.C. Section 10.48.010 “Schedule Of Parking Fines” To Increase Parking Fines Related To Illegal Truck Parking” (even knowing what you’re looking for, the parking meter hour extension issue is hard to spot). 

And in the body of the proposed ordinance changes, the parking meter extension is equally obscure, reading: 

“Section 3 Oakland Municipal Code (O.M.C.) section 10.36.050 ‘Parking Meter Indication That Space is Illegally in Use’ is hereby amended as set forth below. Additions are indicated by underscoring and deletions are indicated by strike through type; portions of ordinances not cited or not shown in underscoring or strike-through type are not changed. 

A. It is illegal for any person to park or leave standing any vehicle in any parking meter zone on any street at any time during which the parking meter shows, indicates, registers, or displays that the parking space is illegally in use except during the time necessary to deposit United States 

coins in said parking meter so as to show, indicate, register, display, or permit legal parking and excepting also during the time from six p.m. eight p.m. to eight a.m., and excepting also all holidays as defined in Section 10.36.090 when indicated by appropriate signs located on the parking meter. When five-hour meters are installed, such meters shall show, indicate, register, display, or permit legal parking during a twenty-four (24) hour period, seven days a week, when indicated by appropriate signs located on the parking meters.” 

No wonder it got overlooked. 

While the demands to cut back the parking meter increases have since been added to the protest, it seems clear that it was the meter hour extension that was the catalyst. That seems to be indicated in the commentary by one of the leaders of the parking revolt, Grand Lake Theater owner Allen Michaan, who wrote in a July 23 Berkeley Daily Planet commentary (“A Death Sentence For Oakland Business”) against the Council decision “to raise the meter rates to an unconscionable $2 per hour and, even worse, to extend enforcement hours to 8 p.m.” 

Rather than a revolt over across-the-board parking fees, this appears to be a revolt against what you might call the “pigfoot factor,” the phenomenon famously introduced by the great blues singer, Bessie Smith, in the song “Gimme A Pigfoot.” Faced, apparently, with being charged 25 cent to enter a bar, Ms. Smith shrieks out, “25 cents? No, no! I wouldn’t pay 25 cents to go in nowhere.” 

The lesson here is that being used to go in a place for free where they can buy liquor and hear music, people will balk and may not even go in if they suddenly find themselves being charged. People will grumble and complain—but are more likely to pay—if the fee to go in goes from 25 cents to 50. That’s just human nature. 

Oakland’s failure to understand that phenomenon is the real lesson to be learned in Oakland’s parking fee revolt.