San Franciscans Armed With Extra Quarters, Parking Chief Worries,” proclaim the Examiner's new bus shelter posters. Truth be known, extra quarters are probably the last thing on the minds of reporters at both the Examiner nad the Chronicle – they park for free, thanks to a magic laminated pass issued by the San Francisco Police Department.
The SFPD dispense the “working press vehicle parking pass” to full-time journalists: The beige pass, displayed on the dashboard of a car, exempts pressies from feeding the meters while gathering news outside the newsroom. But dozens of reporters routinely misuse their the passes to park their cars from 9 to 5 in the vicinity of the shared Chronicle and Examiner office at Fifth and Mission. In some cases, they leave their cars parked overnight.
“The permits are like a carte blanche. They can get away with what they want,” says Jim Thompson, who has been writing tickets for the Department of Parking and Traffic for more than a decade. “I used to work up on Chestnut in the Marina, and I'd see them parked out in front of Prego or Starbucks and they'd be in the window sippin' coffee.”
“It''s well known throughout the city that the media was abusing the passes,” says Barbara Davis, who issues journalists their credentials from the police department's public affairs office.
The police department grew so distraught over parking abuses that it stopped issuing the permits last year. But when reporters displaying expired passes started to get tickets, they took their beefs to the Board of Supervisors. After complaints from KCBS journalist Barbara Taylor and a slew of city hall reporters, then-Supervisor Bill Maher moved to establish a tighter set of rules on who can get passes and how they can be used. The new regulations prohibited pass-holding journalists from parking in tow-away zones, and revoked the cards from scores of art directors, graphic designers and other nonreporters. (Full disclosure: Two SF Weekly editorial staffers applied for press parking privileges earlier this month.)
“There were legitimate complaints about abuse,” says Maher. “There was a whole line of cars with press passes in front of both dailies; that's not what the passes are intended for. They're for newsgathering and there is a parking garage right across the street.”
“We definitely have it under control now,” says Jocelyn Kane, assistant to the executive director at the Department of Parking and Traffic. “We have a much more consistent policy now. No one is complaining.”
But even the Chronicle acknowledges that reporters still misuse their permits. Marshall Kilduff, assistant city editor at the Chron, says some reporters leave the passes in their windows full-time despite the restrictions.
“You're supposed to use them for covering legitimate news, quick things like press conferences and fires when you don't have enough time to park. They're not to be used for parking 9 to 5 or while picking up your dry cleaning,” Kilduff says. He agrees that the Department of Parking and Traffic should ticket reporters who misuse their passes, but that police should not yank the permits because “reporters need them to cover legitimate events.”
(The Examiner did not provide comment for this story.)
The Department of Parking and Traffic, however, still slacks when it comes to writing tickets for the illegally parked cars. Bill Kelly, the department's assistant director of enforcement, says he would not enforce the two-hour rule for cars parked outside the Chronicle and the Examiner unless he knew “specifically what they were doing in there.”
Confusion over press parking privileges extend to people who actually write the citations. Even ticket-writer Thompson is perplexed by the rules, saying the policy gives reporters four hours to gather news (the permits allow two hours or the duration of the news event), but he avoids citing violators because of an unannounced department mandate.
“The department is weary of bad press, so they say to not start anything with the papers,” says Thompson. “It's not official policy, though.”
Kelly denies any unannounced policy and proclaims the department isn't worried about irrating the media.
“If we were to make decisions based on the press, we would never get anything done,” Kelly says. “Regardless of what we do we get bad press.