Forgive Us Our Press Passes

The deadbeat parking practices of Chronicle and Examiner reporters

As anyone who drives the mad streets of downtown will attest, scoring a parking space can be a nightmare. But even after you find a spot, you still have to feed the meter. Wouldn't it be great if you could put a magic card in the window that would ward off zealous meter cops?

Congratulations: You're thinking like one of the many Examiner and Chronicle journalists who misuse their police-issued "working press vehicle parking passes" when parking their vehicles in the vicinity of the newspapers' shared offices at Fifth Street and Mission.

Dispensed by the SFPD to full-time journalists, the beige passes allow reporters to ignore the hungry maw of parking meters while engaged in "active news gathering for two hours or the duration of the news event," as the application states.

But many Examiner and Chronicle journalists misuse their passes, as was reported here in March (see "Press Parking Perk," March 29). At the time, Jocelyn Kane, assistant to the executive director at the Department of Parking and Traffic, acknowledged that some pressies had abused their privileges, but insisted that the violations were in the past.

"We definitely have it under control now," Kane said. "We have a much more consistent policy now. No one is complaining."

No one? Listen to Pat Lawrence, co-owner of 3 Sixes, a clothing shop at nearby Howard and Fifth, who has been hollering holy hell since she opened her shop in December 1994.

"They are never ticketed and they never put a dime in the meters, while everyone who lives and works around here doesn't have a place to park," she says.

Lawrence says she has worked in the neighborhood long enough to perceive a pattern: The same few Chron/Exers arrive early to roost their vehicles next to the meters in front of her store. Later in the afternoon, still more cars exhibiting the press pass flood the area. They all let their meters expire and don't get ticketed, she says. Lawrence, who calls the scofflaws "a major pet peeve," has compiled a running offender list, and on one day counted 22 cars with parking passes stationed at expired meters. And sporting no tickets.

What's irksome to Lawrence and other merchants in the area is that the neighborhood boasts an impressive array of parking options -- including the five-level, block-long parking structure that stretches along Mission between Fourth and Fifth; several independent corner lots; as well as plats owned by the two papers.

Only a few doors from 3 Sixes is Prem Sagar's bedding store, Dreams, at 921 Howard. Sagar says the overparking pressies are such a constant nuisance that some customers have entered his shop and asked if there is a press conference going on nearby. Sagar, who has been doing business at the location for two-and-a-half years, instructed a staffer to complain to the general manager at the Chronicle in hopes of remedying the problem.

"They stopped for two or three weeks, and then they started again," Sagar says. "These passes are not fair. There is so much parking, but they park on the street and take the customer parking away."

When Pat Lawrence's employees complained, they didn't go to the SFPD or to the newspapers, which should make its employees play by the rules. Instead, they took their gripes directly to the neighborhood enforcer of the Department of Parking and Traffic, Parking Control Officer Jim Thompson. Thompson told them that for all intents and purposes, his hands are tied; he can't issue tickets.

That wasn't always the case. Thompson says that in late April his supervisor, Jeanne Slominski, instructed him and Mike deUlibarri, who works the Mission beat, to ticket scofflaws. Thompson says Slominski developed a special code for press pass abuse. If he chalked the tires to mark a car parked at an expired meter, and found that it had overparked for more than two hours, he was to write a standard $25 ticket and include the letters NTO for "next to office" in the comment box. Armed with the new policy, Thompson scribbled a slew of tickets for press offenders.

After Thompson had issued about 20 tickets, word came back down to him through Slominski that he was to steady his ticket-writing hand.

"Jeanne Slominski told me to cut it out. She said, 'This is an election year. You can't be pissing off the press in an election year,' " Thompson says.

Slominski would not talk for this story, but Bill Kelly, the assistant director of enforcement and Slominski's superior, says, "She didn't make that statement to me, but I can't affirm or deny it." Kelly goes on to say that he did effect a change in policy, but he feels flustered that the word didn't reach the parking control officers as he intended.

Kelly says that three or four months ago, he investigated the complaints that had given him the impression that there was "wholesale parking in the 'colored zones' by the offices" of the newspapers by cars that display press passes. Kelly ordered parking control officers to ticket the cars in these loading and passenger zones because he believed "that sitting at the typewriter or on the phone did not cover newsgathering."

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