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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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A small example of government caring can do much to alleviate broad public cynicism

At a time when cynicism about government, and elected officials in particular, is at its zenith, there's some satisfaction in encountering those occasions when government has a more caring demeanor.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess' announcement that he is seeking re-election reminded me of one of those occasions because he was a player in what to most people would be a minor incident but was one that had a larger import for me because it grew out of a column I had done.

The point of the column, which I think has increasing relevance, was that "elected officials need to weigh the implications of anger that constituents feel toward government in certain situations and consider how to bring private-sector principles of customer-friendliness into their thinking."

To many friends and those who read the column, there was an amusing, and some said typical, overreaction on my part to two traffic-related citations, one for $42 for parking wrong against a building and the other a $124 ticket for rolling through a stop sign in my neighborhood at 6:46 one morning.

The point of the column was that it may be at government's peril when citizens, particularly in tough economic times, find serious financial impact from traffic-related brushes with the law and are angered out of a sense that the penalty exceeded what was just or even moral.

 

I wrote that I would go to court on the two tickets and make the point to the magistrate that the cost of the minor moving violation had come during Christmas season and for some in Seattle, that $124 could have a serious financial impact on their holiday.

 

I said I would suggest to the magistrate that since "customer friendliness" was important to government's relations with its "constituents," I was going to ask permission to make a donation equal to the ticket amount to charity rather than pay it to the city. That would make me feel better about the citations, I said.

 

A number of those who received the column urged a follow-up column once I had met with the magistrate.

 

When I arrived in court and handed Seattle Municipal Court Magistrate Lisa M. Leone the column and explained why I was in front of her to discuss the tickets, she said "there is certainly a lot controversy about this issue, and a lot of angry people," then added: "And a lot of poor people are involved."

 

I could perceive that she cared about that fact and was sensitive to my suggestion that since charitable organizations are squeezed as never before, I'd write a check for the amount owed to any charity she designated. But she noted she lacked the power to issue that sort of order.

 

I explained my point about it being in her hands and the hands of her peers to be the instruments of customer friendliness that so often seems lacking, especially in cases where merely the law and not a moral issue is involved, though admittedly some might debate me over a beer about breaking the law basically being a moral issue.

 

To my surprise, she said she was going to change the parking ticket to a warning, then offered me the opportunity to do community service from a list of approved non-profits, for a number of hours equal to the $124 citation amount.

 

She said she lacked the authority to tell me to make a check out to the charity for that amount but was accepting of my statement that I felt compelled to do that.

 

It was clear that while she logically wouldn't share the information with me, there obviously were a number of citizens for whom the traffic-incident costs would pose a serious hardship who found themselves fortunate enough to be in the hands of a magistrate who fit the image of "justice."

 

So I wrote a follow-on column about what happened, with the lead: "It turns out that Justice does have a smile on her face, even when challenged to defend the workings of government against accusations of possible heavy-handedness."

Councilman Burgess comes into the picture because perhaps a year later, following a parking-ticket incident (I always go to court if I think I was treated unfairly) I went to court again and wound up again before the same Magistrate Leone.

 

I asked her if she remembered we had met earlier and that I had done a column on our encounter and she said she did. And she told me that after the column came out, Burgess, who had also seen the column, spent the bulk of a couple of days sitting in her office as those seeking relief from their traffic-infraction costs appeared before her.

 

"I think he genuinely wanted to get an understanding of those who came to appeal their tickets," she told me.

 

Now any politician seeking re-election wants to have good things said about them. But even Burgess might chuckle at the idea that relating this court incident could help his re-election.

 

But I've carried a respect for him since then because little things that are unpublicized tell much about the person.

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Legislation would get tough on illegal use of disabled parking permits

Proposed legislation that would set the stage for imposing tough new penalties on those who "steal" city parking spots by illegally using parking permits issued to disabled drivers is increasingly likely to be approved by the 2013 Legislature.

 

The bill, HB1946, would create a "work group" composed of representatives of the State Department of Health, local governments and disabled-citizen advocacy groups to produce a strategy designed to curb the "tremendous amount of abuse" of the disabled- parking placards.

 

 

Disabled citizens are entitled to park at not only parking spaces reserved for the handicapped, but also in city-operated paid-parking spaces without charge. Seattle officials estimated, for a column I did on this topic two years ago, that 40 percent of downtown and First Hill parking spaces are occupied by vehicles displaying handicapped-parking placards.

 

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, now a mayoral candidate, told me for that 2011 column that the city's police department and state transportation people "estimate that as many as 50 percent of the placards are being illegally used," representing 20 percent of the parking spots in the downtown area.

 

The measure before the 2013 Legislature made it out of the House Transportation Committee last Friday and now awaits referral to the full House for a vote and, if approved by the representatives, will then go to the State Senate.

 

Toby Olson, executive secretary of the Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, says the filing of the bill, sponsored by Olympia's two house members, both Democrats, followed nearly a year of meetings with Seattle officials. The goal was to find solutions to reduce the abuse of disability parking placards while strengthening enforcement for violations.

 

Once approved by both houses and signed by the governor, the bill would immediately require handicapped parking placards to prominently display an expiration date. Using an expired permit would result in a $250 fine.

 

The second phase of the bill would establish the work group, whose goal would be to add more far-reaching provisions. That group would begin meeting in August and deliver its final strategic plan to the 2014 Legislature.

 

"There is no shortage of ideas for the work group to consider," says Olson "But there are consequences to some of the ideas. They'll need to come up with ideas that are actually workable and take cognizance of state budget constraints."

 

The bill makes some specific recommendations to the work group and an interesting one is to explore the extent to which medical professionals, who must certify the disability of those seeking a permit card and auto placard, are aiding the abuse.

 

The bill would require that the strategic plan include "oversight measures" to ensure that parking placards and special license plates for the disabled are being properly issued.

 

The strategic plan would provide for a random review by a volunteer panel of medical professionals of placard issuance and possible sanctions against medical professionals for repeated improper issuance of disabled parking placards

 

The Seattle Police Department says that many physicians distribute parking placards "for reasons that may not comply with state criteria" and a key suggestion is adding the name of the issuing physician on each placard.

 

A Seattle resident who ran across my previous column on the Internet sent me an email some months ago saying he did a test with his own doctor following knee surgery from which he explained he was "now walking without discomfort."

 

"I asked my doctor if I could get one of those permits for disability parking. She smiled wryly and said 'well..hmmmm...I suppose you qualify'. WHAT! I can walk without trouble and it is that easy to get a permit for phantom knee pain that was corrected months ago?"

 

Of course, blaming the disabled-parking abuses mostly on doctors would be unfair in an environment where use of other people's permits or using the placards of those who are now deceased is suspected of being rampant, driven in part probably from the ever-increasing cost of parking.

 

And while the City of Seattle is looking to the legislature to devise ways to address the abuse, which also brings lost revenue for the cities, some tools are already available.

 

One is the use of trained volunteers authorized to issue citations for infractions, which was approved by previous legislation in this state some years ago.

 

In cities elsewhere in the country, trained volunteers are authorized to issue citations for infractions. The Seattle Commission for People With Disabilities, in a report
 on the problem a year ago, suggested the volunteers could record the license plate numbers of cars displaying expired placards, or operated by drivers who didn't appear to be disabled.

 

Some Seattle officials expressed concern that such use of volunteers might lead to confrontations with offending parkers.

 

To which I suggested to one such concerned official that use of volunteers who were large as well as intimidating in appearance would likely take care of the concern.

 

For sure the representatives of the disabled and the city agree increased enforcement and imposition of harsher penalties are essential, particularly for those caught using a placard issued to someone who has since died.

 

 

The issue of stealing handicapped-parking spots, which is of course what cheaters are doing since they are depriving cities of revenue in addition to depriving handicapped drivers of parking places, deserves the attention it's apparently finally going to get from the Legislature.

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Growing focus on handicapped-parking abuse in Seattle needs firmer legal steps

Dick Thorsen is dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease and now  wheel-chair bound, though he's still able to drive in his ramp-enabled van. But he's getting increasingly angry at "non-thinking social morons," drivers with no apparent handicaps who hog handicapped-parking spots in downtown Seattle.

 

"A lot of good my handicapped placard does me since nine times out of 10 times, I can't find an unoccupied handicapped-parking spot," says Thorsen. "And when I hang around waiting for someone to leave, I see obviously non-handicapped persons get in their cars and drive away."

 

Thorsen promises to start a campaign, in the time he has remaining, "to marshal volunteer forces to shame these scofflaws. I'm smart enough to mount a statewide enforcement strategy to curtail these selfish actions."

 

There is a growing irritation at what is seen as "as tremendous amount of abuse" of handicapped placards issued by the state and the sense that the increasing cost of parking in downtown Seattle is leading to illegal use of the placards.

 

Thorsen sent me an email last week after running across a column on the Internet that I did in early 2011 that was aimed at highlighting what actions have been taken, and what hasn't been done, to address the placard-abuse problem..

 

I noted in the column that Seattle parking officials observed that "the tremendous amount of abuse of these placards limits access to legitimate placard holders and other parkers." Not to mention lost dollars for the City of Seattle

 

And reaction of those like Thorsen, as well as ordinary citizens who are merely irritated on behalf of the handicapped, has led to efforts on the part of the City of Seattle to consider seeking action by the Legislature. As yet the City Council hasn't been able to reach accord with various stakeholders on what form the suggested legislation should take.

 

But a key step toward agreement on a proposal to the Legislature may come Monday when Seattle City Council representatives meet with the head of the Governor's Commission on Disability Issues and Employment, an entity Seattle officials view as an essential partner in any effort to get tougher legislation.

 

Toby Olson, executive secretary of the commission, says he began meetings with Seattle officials earlier this year on finding solutions to reduce the abuse of disability parking placards and strengthen enforcement for disability parking violations.

 

Seattle officials say they are confident about an agreement that will lead to a bill in the 2013 legislature, but that any proposal must take cognizance of state budget constraints.

.

Disabled citizens are entitled to park at not only parking spots reserved for the handicapped, but also city-operated paid parking spots without charge. City officials estimate that 40 percent of downtown and First Hill parking spaces are occupied by vehicles displaying handicapped-parking placards.

 

"The police department and state transportation people "estimate that as many as 50 percent of the placards are being illegally used," City Councilman Tim Burgess told me for the 2011 column, noting that amounts to 20 percent of the total parking spots in those areas.

 

State law makes it illegal for anyone but the person to whom the state permit and placard are issued to use placard, tabs, or license plates if the disabled person is not in the vehicle. "You can't let your friends or family borrow them for their own use," advises the state website.

 

Over the past year, the Seattle Department of Transportation has been working with stakeholders, including the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, on putting together a plan that could be submitted to the 2013 Legislature for action.

 

SDOT and the DisAbilities Commission agree on most steps to address the problem, though the commission disagrees with shortening to four hours the time a vehicle using a handicapped placard can park downtown.

 

Interestingly, one of the issues both the city agency and the commission agree on is that the law needs to be more strict with physicians who issue the placards.

 

The Seattle Police Department says that many physicians distribute parking placards "for reasons that may not comply with state criteria" and a key suggestion is adding the name of the issuing physician on each placard.

 

Another person who ran across my column on the Internet sent me an email some months ago saying he did a test with his own doctor following knee surgery from which he explained he is "now walking without discomfort."

 

"I asked my doctor if I could get one of those permits for disability parking. She smiled wryly and said 'well..hmmmm...I suppose you qualify'. WHAT! I can walk without trouble and it is that easy to get a permit for phantom knee pain that was corrected months ago?"

 

City of Seattle, in fact, is apparently asking the King County Medical Association to admonish members about the integrity role in issuing handicapped permits.

 

Interestingly, ala Dick Thorsen's suggestion of mustering volunteers, the use of volunteers to patrol downtown areas in search of handicapped-parking abusers is already legal as a result of legislation a few years ago. Cities in nearly two dozen other states have already adopted a version of using volunteers to help address the problem.

 

In some places, trained volunteers are authorized to issue citations for infractions. But the commission also suggested the volunteers could record the license plate numbers of cars displaying expired placards, or operated by obviously non-handicapped drivers.

 

The idea of using volunteers and authorizing them to issue citations for illegal use of handicapped placards was discussed last fall, but City Council representatives were advised by the city's legal department that further legislation would first be necessary. 

 

For sure the commission and City Department of Transportation agree increased enforcement and higher penalties are essential to curbing abuse, and imposition of harsher penalties, particularly for those caught using a placard issued to someone who has since died.

 

Noting that Seattle police report that finding placards being used that are registered to a person who is deceased is "one of the top methods of abuse," the commission says unequivocally the cars of such drivers should be impounded.

 

The Seattle City Council obviously has much on its plate, including budget issues and things like the proposed new Sodo arena. But the issue of stealing handicapped-parking spots, which is of course what cheaters are doing, deserves to be looked at long enough to frame a legislative proposal since the legislators will only act if they think it's important enough for Seattle to ask.

 

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