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Beat the Meter

Loop Parking Laws Seem Designed to Infuriate

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In the ceaseless war against senseless parking laws the rebels have found a new and most unlikely ally.

Meet Gilbert Daspit, a 60-something, retired traffic control aide from the far south side. That's right. In his lifetime Daspit has ticketed many a car, but now he's moving to the other side--though he doesn't see it that way.

As he sees it, he's rebelling against what even city officials privately concede is a confusing ordinance that outlaws parking for more than 30 minutes at a time in the Loop.

What set Daspit off was this: he parked downtown one day last week, fed the meter twice--paying for almost 60 minutes--only to get a $25 ticket for parking in the same spot for more than 30 minutes.

"My meter had not expired, that's the key point, but they're saying it's illegal to do what everybody does, which is feed the meter so you can hold a space while you run errands," he says. "I told a police officer about this and he said the law stinks. They don't like it 'cause they don't want to be harassing shoppers and discouraging people from driving downtown to shop."

In his effort to turn the tide against this law, Daspit has been on the phone every day since he was ticketed, calling cops, merchants, reporters, librarians, aldermen, even a television anchorman. Almost everyone he talks to says the same thing: the law crosses the line between order and harassment, if for no other reason than that it's so hard to understand. "If that's really the law, then I'm in a lot of trouble," one city official concedes. "Because I feed meters in the Loop all the time."

Daspit's rebellion is one of many to flare up over the last few years, as the city's cracked down on scofflaws. From Mayor Daley's perspective he has no choice: with federal cutbacks, the city needs the money parking tickets bring in.

At the center of the effort are the legion of green-suited ticket writers known as traffic enforcement aides. "I feel for these guys 'cause they have a tough job," says Daspit. "They've got quotas to reach. They have to write 100 tickets per day. After a while some of them get desperate, and you have situations where they're writing up tickets for people who parked in front of meterless poles. Walter Jacobson got ahold of that story and it made the city look awful."

For the most part, the aides operate in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Hyde Park, the Gold Coast, and other congested high-rent districts. "They're going after the money--that's what it's all about," says Daspit. "They don't write tickets on 79th between King and Cottage. You can park down there all day; no one's watching."

But the Loop is another matter, as he discovered on November 13. "My wife and I had to go downtown for a [meeting] which wasn't supposed to take too long, so I figured I'd just park on the street," he says. He parked on the west side of Wabash at Madison, at a meter that charges 25 cents for five minutes of parking. "We found the parking space at ten minutes to nine and my wife put 50 cents into the meter," he says. "The meeting was taking longer than I expected, and when I went out to feed the meter at 9:03 I had a ticket."

He put $1.50 in the meter for another half an hour. "When I got back from the meeting I saw the traffic ticket guy coming south from behind my car," says Daspit. "I said, 'Are you the guy who gave me the ticket before?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You're not giving me another ticket, are you?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Look at the meter--I got five minutes left.' He said, 'That doesn't matter. Your car shouldn't be here for more than half an hour.' I said, 'But the meter's not expired.' He turned and walked away and said, 'Call Channel Two.'"

Daspit did just that, leaving a message for news anchor Lester Holt. But Holt never returned the call. So Daspit began calling around City Hall, where he discovered it's virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen to get solid information. It's a catch-22: those who answer the phones don't know the answers; those who do don't answer the phones.

He called the City Council's traffic committee and "wound up talking to a guy named Mike," says Daspit. "I told him my story, and he said, 'That stinks.' Then he told me to call the Mayor's Office of Inquiry and Information."

There he talked to an operator who said the 30-minute rule was intended to keep traffic moving through the Loop. "She said, 'You wouldn't want someone who works at Filene's Basement to park on the street.' I said, 'Wait a minute, the clerk at Filene's Basement is not going to park on the street, not for those prices. Who in their right mind would want to pay $24 for an eight-hour day when they can park in a lot for ten?' She didn't have an answer for that, but she told me to call the Municipal Reference Library.

"So I called the library and I got a guy who told me that the parking law had been amended on November 1. At least that's what I think he said; he had a heavy Indian accent and I couldn't understand him so well. To tell you the truth, I don't think he understood me either."

Not knowing what else to do, Daspit got hold of the municipal code and discovered that within a zone roughly stretching north to south from Division to Roosevelt and east to west from Lake Michigan to Halsted, no "operator of any motor vehicle shall permit such vehicle to remain in the parking meter zone for an additional consecutive time period." That means if a meter grants you only 30 minutes at a time, you'd better move after half an hour or risk a ticket. "This is just another way to raise money by enacting a law that nobody asked for and nobody needs," says Daspit. It also leaves some unanswered questions. For example, can you pull out after 30 minutes, drive around the block, and return to the space if it's still vacant?

"Who knows?" says Daspit. "As far as the ticket writer knew, I might very well have left that spot, driven around the block, and returned to it. He could be breaking the law by ticketing me for an offense I never committed. And it's not just me--the lady behind me also had a ticket for exceeding the so-called 30-minute limit. I'll bet there's dozens of them written every day. I'll bet you most people pay them without even thinking about it. And that's how the city gets your money for something you never did wrong.

"This stuff happens all the time. I remember there was this stretch on Monroe where you had to start feeding the meters at nine in the morning. People would park at seven, grab some coffee, and come back to feed the meters at nine. Well, the city came along and put up signs saying no parking from seven to nine. But most people didn't think of looking at the signs, they just went on doing what they always had done, and the next thing you know the city's towing cars left and right and making people pay hundreds of dollars in fines. They're always changing the laws. It's a wonder anyone knows what is and isn't legal."

Seeking support, Daspit called the Greater State Street Council. "I talked to Belinda Reeves, the executive director, and she was sympathetic," he says. "I told her I was born and raised in Chicago and it makes me mad when I see so many of my friends and relatives going out of the city to shop. But can you blame them? We're driving people out of the Loop with all these ridiculous parking prohibitions. I mean, if I'm going downtown to get a birth certificate from City Hall--sure, I'll take public transportation. But I can't carry a microwave oven on a bus or train. If you're going downtown to shop you'll want to drive."

For her part, Reeves says she doesn't know enough about the 30-minute parking law to comment on its merits. "When [Daspit] called our office I indicated we need a copy of the ordinance to study, and we made a call to the city clerk's office," says Reeves. "They indicated that they would research it and send us back a copy of the ordinance."

At last word, Reeves was still waiting for that ordinance. In the meantime, Daspit says he'll appeal the ticket. "You'd think they'd have free parking to bring shoppers in for the holiday season, instead of fleecing citizens for the holidays," he says. "They have such a doofus way of doing things. I'm wondering: If I send both of these tickets back in the same envelope to save postage, will I get my hearing or will they send me a letter saying they've added to my penalty? You never know. When it comes to parking tickets, stranger things have happened."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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