Cover Story: A day on the prowl with PARKatlanta

Undercover (kind of) with Atlanta's most hated agency

Thursday May 26, 2011 05:00 am EDT

Keisha Thomas, a 28-year-old mother of twin boys, seems to have achieved a Zen-like sense of calm. That can come in handy when you have a job that involves occasionally being verbally abused by complete strangers.

When I requested to shadow a PARKatlanta meter maid, sure, I wanted some insight into the daily workings of Atlanta's most-hated agency. (And, for the record, Thomas says "meter maid" is derogatory; her job title is parking enforcement officer.) But, what I really wanted was to experience the public's vitriol firsthand. As evidenced by the dopey-if-addictive A&E reality show "Parking Wars," a parking ticket — not to mention a boot — sure can bring out the worst in people. Apparently, in London, parking enforcement agents are so reviled that they're outfitted with stab-proof vests and "kits" that contain cotton swabs so they can collect DNA when people spit at them.

Basically, I'd hoped that we'd be spat upon.

The people at the Department of Public Works didn't want me to draw too much attention when I tagged along with Thomas while she made her ticket-writing rounds, so they suggested I dress the part of employee. In my "uniform" — a gargantuan PARKatlanta shirt tucked only partially into my own jeans, a purse on my shoulder, and a pair of Reebok EasyTones (shut up) on my feet — I looked as much like a PARKatlanta trainee as a scrubs-clad mental patient looks like a doctor. Besides a woman dressed like a big fat phony (me), Thomas was tailed by two Public Works employees — PR manager Valerie Bell-Smith and parking project officer Benita Clemons-Dunn — who did their best to seem nonchalant whilst supervising my walk-along, as well as CL photo editor Joeff Davis, who did his best to take pictures and be invisible, a thing that is not possible. Thomas genuinely didn't seem bothered in the least by the intrusion into her routine. But, then again, she's pretty used to being hassled.

It's safe to assume that Public Works hooked me up with the most exemplary PARKatlanta employee it could find — a decently knowledgeable, super-polite woman who's hardly fazed by the mild abuse associated with her job. As we weave our way through downtown's Fairlie-Poplar District, I poke and prod for the gruesome details of her worst interactions with disgruntled ticket recipients. She concedes that, yes, people holler, curse and give her the finger, but insists it's not that bad and she's not that bothered by it. "We get the yelling and the cursing. I mean, at some point you do get used to it because it happens every day," she says. "The citizens don't like us, but we're here to help. We're not here to hurt. We're here to make sure that people aren't making spaces their own personal spaces."

Ultimately, she's not dodging loogies on a daily basis. But, even if a PARKatlanta logo doesn't make its wearer quite the pariah it did even as recently as a year ago, field agents for the widely disliked out-of-town outfit, which was contracted by Atlanta to usurp control of parking enforcement in late 2009, still aren't prone to make fast friends with the public. As PARKatlanta installed new meters throughout the city and started enforcing parking regulations where they hadn't previously been enforced, there was a definite failure to communicate new expectations to Atlanta's drivers. PARKatlanta ticket-writers earned a reputation for being overly eager, impolite and even ignorant of the rules they were supposed to be enforcing. Last May, the City Council-imposed 30-day moratorium on their ability to ticket, tow or boot sent a clear message to the company: Get your shit together.

Citizens and local officials alike have said that Atlantans don't mind paying for parking — or for tickets if they're actually in the wrong — as long as the rules make sense, are equitably enforced and properly displayed. But, really, even if you've got it coming, no one ever likes getting a ticket.

On a shady side street, Thomas comes upon an Atlanta police officer's car that's parked at an expired meter, and decides to write him a warning just to demonstrate to me how the handheld ticket-issuer works. First she enters the alphanumeric code from the meter on the touchpad, then the vehicle information: tag number or VIN, make, model and color. A thing I didn't realize is that the handheld is also equipped with a digital camera so PARK- atlanta officers can photograph both the car's tag and the expired meter, presumably so there's evidence of the offense in the event that the driver tries to contest his ticket.

The car she's writing the warning for is the officer's personal vehicle, not an actual patrol car. We know this because he's left his vest on the dashboard to indicate that he's exempt from feeding the meter — which he really isn't. Right after she slips the warning under a windshield wiper, a visibly annoyed uniformed cop approaches and says in a tone that demands explanation, penance or both: "You just put a ticket on my car." She tells him calmly that it's a warning, and that he isn't subject to a fine — this time. He doesn't respond, just glares at her and walks away.

"That cop seemed pissed," I say.

"Was he?" she asks. "I didn't really notice."

A couple blocks away, we encounter a more conspicuous kind of rude: the hilarious kind. In front of a Georgia State University office building on Peachtree Street, a car with a handicapped placard — another demographic that Thomas hints tends to think itself exempt from paying for parking — is sitting at an expired meter. As she begins to enter the vehicle's plate number into her handheld, a not-at-all-handicapped man in a white tank top and baggy jean shorts emerges from the building shouting, "Yo, that's my car!" Before Thomas can launch into an explanation about his offense or offer him a chance to feed the meter, a gappy smile spreads across the man's face. "Aw, I was just playing," he says. It's a popular ruse, and one that's apparently funny enough that three strangers walking past burst into cacophonous laughter. One of them, a pudgy guy in business casual, literally slaps his knee before offering the man a high five.

Criticism of the job PARKatlanta and its foot soldiers are doing has hardly been limited to on-street interactions. Fed-up members of the public have taken to the Internet with their distaste for Atlanta's new parking overlords. A Facebook fan page entitled "Fire PARKatlanta" is one of the more popular forums for people to post camera phone videos of enforcement agents on the prowl, photos of PARKatlanta vehicles parked illegally and helpful suggestions like this, posted in early April: "If you work for Park Atlanta you should reevaluate yourself as a human being."

One of the page's co-administrators — who asked to remain anonymous — says he hasn't kept up with parking issues as much lately, but still hopes to "get people motivated to get rid of PARKatlanta." He worries that confusing signage and difficult-to-operate multispace meters hurt tourism, especially in heavily enforced areas like Midtown. He's heard from plenty of people who've emerged from interactions with rude enforcement agents. But, like many others, his primary beef is with the seven-year contract to privatize parking operations that the city is stuck in.

"I just don't understand why we've basically given this company the incentive to prey upon us," he says. "If there was some kind of cap or the company didn't have incentive to ruthlessly ticket, it would be different. The principle of it is wrong."

Atlanta's contract with PARKatlanta works as follows: Each year until 2016, Duncan Solutions — a Milwaukee-based corporation that operates here as PARKatlanta — pays the city $5.5 million. Duncan installs and maintains all of the parking equipment and signage, and manages enforcement personnel; in exchange, it keeps all of the revenue from the meters and from the citations it writes. If the city decides not to renew the contract when it expires, Atlanta gets to keep all of the equipment that's been installed.

But the writing's on the wall: PARKatlanta has to do its fighting best to recoup the $5.5 million it pays the city each year. In the months after the contract was signed, PARKatlanta increased the number of metered spaces citywide from 833 to 2,577. (At present, says Public Works, PARKatlanta "is not in receipt of any work orders for expansion of the meter inventory.") In 2010, the outfit brought in $2,970,000 from meters and another $2,978,000 from citations — and, based on totals through the beginning of May, it's on track to make more like $4.5 million this year from citations alone (and about that same amount from meters).

Lots of major cities — usually those in need of quick cash to close budget holes — have inked similar privatization deals in recent years. In 2008, Chicago hastily approved an insane 75-year, $1.2 billion lease of its parking meters to a private holding company. Where Atlanta saw an increase in the number of meters and meter readers on the streets, Chicago saw hourly parking rates quadruple practically overnight. Mike Brockway, administrator of the Chicago parking blog the Expired Meter, describes the public's reaction following the rate hike as "visceral." The sentiment there seems to echo that in Atlanta. "It's like the mayor went down to the pawn shop with a family heirloom and hocked it," says Brockway. "He looked at the short term and screwed us in the long term."

In January, a Chicago enforcement agent was repeatedly punched in the face by an angry ticket recipient, and Brockway says he hears from them that they get hassled every day. "It's not like it started just with the meter lease deal, but it did get worse," he says. Generally, though, he regards the meter maids as respectful, even "cool." The "Fire PARK-atlanta" administrator, on the other hand, describes local meter readers as "unfriendly" and "irrational," but concedes that he's talked to some who've been "good."

"They're the ones," he says, "who get that the contract is bullshit."

Foolishly, I neglect to ask Thomas whether or not she thinks the contract is bullshit. After a couple hours downtown, Thomas has written only three tickets (actually, I wrote one of them — sorry, black Honda Accord!) and the warning for the ornery cop. The system that allows her handheld device to communicate wirelessly with the multispace pay stations is on the fritz, so there's no way to tell who has paid and who hasn't, and we've been limited, for the most part, to writing tickets for violations at the change-only, single-space meters. She could mark cars parked at the multispace meter spots and ticket them for exceeding time limits, but she doesn't.

"Is there a certain number of tickets you're expected to write in a day?" I ask.

"No, that would be illegal to have any kind of quota," Thomas says. "We don't have a quota at all." Good answer.

Thomas, our dutiful chaperones and I are picked up in the van and taken by a supervisor over to Ansley Park, which is one of 13 Atlanta neighborhoods that require residential parking permits. The permit programs are put in place at the behest of the respective neighborhoods to prevent nonresidents from gobbling up all the on-street parking. Unfortunately, since PARKatlanta's genesis, lots of residents have complained that permit enforcement has been more hurtful than helpful. Inman Park was hit especially hard — at one point residents were reporting being ticketed as often as three times in one day.

As Public Works' Benita Clemons-Dunn explains how residential parking zones work — or, I guess, should work — a man walks by with his two Jack Russell terriers and mutters, "Hey, Benita."

The dog walker's name is John Merideth and he's no stranger to dealing with PARK-atlanta. Besides living in a residential permit zone, he owns a yoga studio in an area of Midtown where more meters appeared and enforcement was ramped up last year.

"It's just such a headache," Merideth says later during a phone interview. "It's been such an irritating experience for everyone. All of it's been so poorly implemented."

Despite the fact that he has an Ansley Park permit displayed in his car's back window, Merideth says he gets ticketed whenever a new officer patrols, and even once when he physically pointed it out to them. That's been annoying, but Merideth says enforcement in Midtown has caused his yoga business to "go down the drain." When PARKatlanta came on, spaces that used to be free after 6 p.m. were suddenly being enforced until 10 p.m. After months of petitioning and "complaining, complaining, complaining," as he puts it, Merideth convinced the city to again end enforcement at 6 p.m., but only on a small segment of Eighth Street. "I think that the city of Atlanta tried to work with me to some degree," says Merideth, "but I'm just really shocked and appalled that they agreed to this contract without doing any research at all on how it would effect small businesses."

Councilman Kwanza Hall, who called for last year's parking moratorium, also worries about PARKatlanta's effect on businesses, particularly in the up-and-coming Edgewood entertainment district. He doesn't mind that there are meters and enforcement along the corridor, but disagrees with the decision to install single-space meters that require users to carry change. "There is no way on earth that we should have single-space meters on Edgewood," Hall says. "That is a slap in the face. How can we say we support small business? It's so unfair. It's un-American, really."

Public Works says that "needs and usage" determine which type of meter goes where; for instance, multispace meters make more sense in areas with high turnover. Arguably, they'd make more sense everywhere because they take credit cards and bills, not just coins. Who, besides Laundromat operators and senior citizens with slot machine addictions, always has several dollars in quarters on their person?

Because his district is home to the highest concentration of metered spaces, Hall's office was barraged with citizen complaints when PARKatlanta first came on. He says he receives far fewer calls lately, but he's dubious that it's because people are no longer having problems. "The calls have decreased, but that's not necessarily because it's gotten better," he says. "It's because people have given up."

Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who headed the parking enforcement subcommittee, is slightly more optimistic about the progress that's been made, saying he thinks PARKatlanta's operation is working now like it should have worked from the get-go. "If the city had been better prepared and more deliberate about turning its operation over in the initial stages," Bond says, "I think people would have felt differently about parking enforcement." Asked if he foresees the contract with PARKatlanta being renewed in 2016, Bond says he doesn't think people are calling for their heads anymore, "but who knows what the next five years will bring?" On the last leg of our route — the area around Grady Memorial Hospital — Thomas writes only one ticket. She does, however, give directions a couple of times, calls in a broken parking meter to her dispatcher, and patiently helps a man figure out how to use a multispace meter. In garbled speech, he asks if it's OK if he sells ice cream out of his parked van. Thomas says, sure, as long as he pays the meter. (I'm actually not sure that it is OK, but I suppose it's nice that she's a champion of Atlanta's burgeoning street food culture.)

It's after lunchtime, she hasn't had a break yet and it's getting hot, but Thomas says she's fine. "You think you'll keep doing this for a while?" I ask, mostly making small talk at this point for lack of spitting, knife-wielding parking violators.

"Yeah," she says, "I like it. I like helping people."

Bless her heart.

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