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Thursday, June 4, 2009
An Odd Little Tale from a City Council Work Session

How responsible should a City feel for drivers who don't heed clearly-posted parking regulations in private parking lots? And how a misguided proposed American Fork City ordinance failed, instead of succeeding -- and effectively seizing private property in the process. (This one has pictures.)

Emergency Is in the Eye of the Office Holder

This afternoon I found myself sitting in an American Fork City Council work session, because of my interest in an item near the end of the relatively short agenda, of which more soon.

I was a few minutes late. I arrived just as the council began its discussion of another item. I knew some background, so I listened carefully, expecting to hear something noteworthy.

Not too long ago, on a Friday, Mayor Heber Thompson gave notice of an "emergency" meeting of the city council about 24 hours later, on Saturday, the soonest possible under the noticing requirements. He couldn't get a quorum, so there was no meeting. He tried for a noon meeting the following Monday, but failed to get a quorum then, too.

No, the City was not under enemy attack. It seems that someone -- or perhaps as many as three someones -- had parked illegally in a private lot in downtown American Fork and had had to pay . . . Hmmm, let's check the prices . . .

Ah, yes. Either $65.00 to get the boot removed, or $157.00 for the tow.

This spurred the mayor to seek passage of a new ordinance, setting maximum fees for towing companies within city limits. These price caps, I'm told, were to be $15.00 for the boot and $25.00 for the tow.

There's a very interesting question here, to which I don't know the answer: Who was it who got booted and/or towed? In other words, who has such clout with Mayor Thompson that he would not only propose the ordinance, but try to call an emergency meeting to get it passed? If he were engaged to be married, and if the wedding were imminent, and if the future mother-in-law already didn't like him, and if she were the bootee or the towee, this level of urgency might make sense -- but these conditions do not seem to apply.

We may never know who elicits such a response, but that's okay. There are other fish to fry here at the blog. Before we throw them on the skillet, however, you need some more background.

More Background

For most American Forkers, the most recognizable description of the lot's location will be this: Its entrance and much of the lot itself are between the old Yogurt Parlor and the old Six Star discount store. For the rest of you, that's between Merchant Street and 100 West, on the north side of Main Street. There is an exit from the lot just south of the post office on Merchant Street.

The lot is the private property of a prominent American Forker, Bill Jacob. (Did I mention that its private property?) The City's contribution is a small sign at the entrance, posted too high for some drivers to see, that says, "Private Parking. Permit Required."

There are dozens of parking spaces in the lot, each reserved for someone, either current customers of a particular business, or employees, or perhaps others who have purchased the requisite permit. There is one sign for every parking space, and then some. Even if you miss the little City sign at the entrance, you could hardly miss, or even misinterpret, the other signs.

There are many of these:

There are many of these, too:

There are several of these:

I saw one of these:

And one helpful neighboring business has contributed a casually punctuated but effective banner of its own:

The Aforementioned Fish

At an earlier work session the city council did its homework. They discussed the proposed ordinance, interrogated the towing company, consulted with legal counsel, and so forth. The essential points are these:

  • The State of Utah already caps booting and towing fees, and the towing company in this case is compliant with that regulation.
  • The towing company's costs far exceed what they could make at the rates specified in the proposed ordinance, $15.00 for a boot and $25.00 for a tow.

And did I mention that we're talking about private property here?

There was a lot of talk today about the lot being private property, about whether the tow company's current rates are predatory or reasonable (I suggest the latter), and about whether the City has an obligation to protect residents who do not read or do not feel obligated to heed the signs, and who therefore trespass on private property and find their mobility temporarily impeded. Apparently, so much of this discussion rehashed what was said at an earlier meeting that some city councilors were surprised to discover that the proposed ordinance was still sufficiently alive to appear on an agenda.

In the end, city councilors and staff managed, one well-tempered blow at a time, to persuade the mayor that the ordinance was a bad idea. Or did they? At the end of the discussion, Mayor Thompson said something to the effect that the council apparently did not want to pursue the ordinance. Maybe he was only persuaded that it was hopeless, not that it was bad. I didn't ask him to clarify.

A number of instructive points suggest themselves, including the ability of otherwise intelligent, rational people to advocate bizarre and irrational ideas from time to time. But the most interesting line of reasoning may be one I did not hear in the meeting. It is a mix of law and economics.

If the City required tow companies with contracts in American Fork to charge fees lower than their costs of doing business -- as this proposed ordinance would have done -- those tow companies could no longer do business in American Fork. Therefore, Mr. Jacob and other property owners in the same situation, even big companies such as Wal-Mart, would be unable to get anyone to tow away cars that were parked on their property without authorization. Therefore, the City's ordinance would have effectively turned their private lots into free public parking. This could be construed as government seizure of private property without due process. It could lead to a lawsuit or series of lawsuits which the City would have virtually no chance of winning. It's quite predictable.

I suppose there's an alternative to this scenario, but it's not a reasonable one. The towing companies could radically change their business model, so that their clients, not the illegal parkers, somehow paid most of the cost of booting and towing. But that's pretty twisted -- why should I have to pay the penalty when someone else parks illegally on my property? -- and it would have some economic repercussions of its own.

Happily, the city council was disinclined to abide such well-intentioned foolishness, despite the mayor's fervent advocacy. Good for them. I can't speak for Mayor Thompson, but I can speak from my own experience: It's nice to have people around me who are willing to tell me candidly when I produce a genuinely bad idea.

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