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.”

Then, he says, word came down from a “higher authority” that he needed to re-examine the policy. According to Kelly, an editor at the Chronicle placed a call to the Department of Parking and Traffic's executive offices to insist that working at the office was part of the newsgathering process. Kelly came to agree with the Chronicle editor and revised his original policy. That is when he says he asked Slominski to tell the parking control officers to chalk the tires of reporters parked in the Fifth and Mission neighborhood and write them tickets two hours after their meters expired. (Two hours of free parking is the same leeway reporters get when legally parked in the field and reporting a story.)

Kelly says he changed the policy for two reasons:
“We, like any governmental agency, need to maintain good relations with the press. Second, it's a matter of the First Amendment.”

Toni Coe, the director of enforcement at Parking and Traffic affirms Kelly's words. Sort of. She says that the parking control officers shouldn't go out of their way to avoid writing tickets for the press, but that it is difficult to ascertain if reporters are engaged in active newsgathering.

Parking Control Officers Thompson and deUlibarri say they are sufficiently familiar with the area — and the color, make, and model of cars belonging to Chronicle and Examiner reporters — that they know who is breaking the code.

“We know they aren't getting any stories when they park in front of the building all day,” says deUlibarri.

Naturally, many of the Chronicle and Examiner reporters who violate the parking code think they're doing nothing wrong. Listen to this sample of Chron/Exers, whose unticketed cars were parked beside expired meters for more than two hours in late August. (The owners of the cars were identified through Department of Motor Vehicle records.)

Craig Marine, an Examiner reporter who routinely overparks his sporty green Alfa-Romeo convertible, says the parking pass doesn't always exempt him from the long arm of the Parking and Traffic department.

“It's a crapshoot; sometimes you get ticketed, sometimes you do not,” he says.

Malcolm Glover, an Examiner man and the owner of a maroon Ford Taurus, who repeatedly parks at expired meters (while displaying a parking pass), says that he's received tickets “at $25 a pop” when he failed to feed the meters.

“During my seven or eight hours at the office I usually go out to the meter three or four times a day to put money in the meter, but sometimes I get too busy and forget to get down there,” he explains.

Chronicle employee Kevin Leary, who parks a maroon Chevy a few feet from Car Park on Fifth and Howard, has only this to say before he hangs up the phone:

“I'm on business, that's all I need to talk to you about, good talkin' to ya.”

Leary should talk to Jocelyn Kane of the Department of Parking and Traffic, who reiterates the fact that the passes do not cover the routine parking needs of journalists beyond the allotted two-hour grace period.

“There was widespread abuse because the system to distribute the passes was not under control and the rules of use were not understood. We took them on, and the outcome of the hoopla was a new law that made it very clear,” Kane says referring to the codes penned by then-Supervisor Bill Maher. The codes mandated the specific two-hour rule and the “duration of the news event” clause that was included “so if the reporters were covering a fashion show or something they would be able to park there for the entire time,” says Kane.

Kane says that the codes are now enforced and that all complaints are referred to SFPD for investigation.

“There is very little that this department can do now,” Kane says.
The Police Department has taken action against an offender in the recent case of a journalist who drew several complaints. Although SFPD Assistant Public Affairs Officer Sgt. Jim Leach will not disclose the name of the reprimanded reporter, he assures there is a means for controlling abuse.

“If we become aware that someone is inappropriately using their permit, then appropriate action will be taken. It could range from notifying the person to ascertaining information to terminating the pass, but it will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” Leach says.

Until those complaints filter in, writers at the city's two dailies will be free to follow the lead of their colleague Steve Rubenstein of the Chronicle.

“I'm very frequently a passive newsgatherer, but when I become an active newsgatherer I like to have [my car] nearby.

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