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Anatomy of a Scandal: City Axes “Gold Card” Line to Fix Parking Tix

10:19 AM PDT on May 23, 2011

Last Thursday, Los Angeles Comptroller Wendy Greuel released the findings of an audit of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's parking program to address shortcomings in revenue collection.  Greuel's report identified a couple of areas that needed addressing to maximize revenue, but the item that caught the media's attention was the so-called "Gold Card Desk" (GCD) where City Council Members could "fix" parking tickets brought to their attention by constituents with a simple phone call.

The Mayor's Office responded by mockingly reminding the Comptroller that as City Council Transportation Committee Chair, she had been briefed on the program several times and as Council Woman for the 2nd District had staff call the line several times.  However, by Friday afternoon, Mayor Villaraigosa ordered LADOT to end the GCD, which it promptly did.  A call to the GCD hotline now directs you to a recorded message by Villaraigosa extolling the values of transparent government.

In her report, available here, Greuel wrote of the Gold Card line:

This appears to suggest that you need political pull to expedite the investigation of a ticket.  The GCD canceled approximately 1,000 tickets over the two year period we reviewed without comprehensive policies or procedures guiding cancellations, suggesting a less than transparent process.

Greuel hit political gold with her report, tieing in many people's favorite complaints with government: parking policy, political favoritism and government transparency, or a lack thereof.  There are several things, both about city politics and parking policy that can be learned from this spat.

Lesson 1: The LADOT is an agency that clearly needs reform.  This is the second audit in five weeks of the agency's parking policy that has found the management of the parking program in need of some fixing.  While there may be some value to letting elected officials' offices work directly on fixing bogus tickets, the lack of a paper trail on many of the "fixed" tickets suggests the LADOT was going for the path of least resistance.  KCET, who actually did some real reporting on this issue, showed how one scofflaw driver got tickets fixed by just annoying Council staff.

Lesson 2: The LADOT is an agency that clearly needs reform.  This is the third audit in five weeks that shows a Department that is under performing.  Joining the two parking audits is an audit detailing missed opportunities in spending federal stimulus funds.

Lesson 3: Los Angeles' "vehicle fleet" program is a program that clearly needs reform.  L.A. Streetsblog has suggested several ways to reform the bloated "take-home" and office vehicle fleets as did Greuel's predecessor Laura Chick.  Now we have another reason, the current system encourages scofflaw behavior by City staff.  L.A. Weekly reports that "'Protective plate holders' -- those public officials allowed to get plates that hide their information from police and parking officers -- have basically had a get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to parking tickets."  Since there's no official record of who is using these "publicly owned" vehicles, there is no way of charging scofflaw city staff.

Lesson 4: Wendy Greuel seems to be on the outs with the Mayor's Office.  Back in the Spring of 2009, Greuel ran for Comptroller on the Mayor's slate of candidates.  In July of 2009, at the last meeting of the City Council Transportation Committee which she chaired before becoming Comptroller, the LADOT lavished praise on the Chair and presented her with an award for her years of working together.  Then General Manager Rita Robinson even joked that she looked forward to being audited.

Those days are over.

The Mayor's Office first responded to the audit by pointing out that Greuel, despite her claim of being "shocked," was well aware of the program from her time on the Council and released record of her Council staff using the line.  This of course told the public nothing of the value of the program, and did almost nothing to stop the media storm that was already ensuing.  It was an attempt to knock some of the luster off Greuel's image as she begins a run for Mayor.

Lesson 5: The City needs help negotiating contracts.  If a ticket was "fixed" through the GCR, the city was still charged a fee by the company in charge of collecting the parking fees.  In other words, the city was paying Allied Computer Services for tickets that had ceased to exist.

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