CLASS ACTION- AND publicity-savvy Seattle attorney Steven Berman has in the past sued Boeing, American Express, Nordstrom, Exxon, the cigarette industry, and Mike Tyson for an assortment of alleged product, profit, health, and ear-biting violations. Now he's drawn up a lawsuit we can all sink our teeth into: parking meter fraud by City Hall.
It's nothing new to the small number of people who have always challenged parking tickets or gone to City Hall to get their change back due to faulty meters (the city clerk regularly sees damage claims filed by cheated meter users asking for their quarters back).
But Berman claims as many as 40 percent of the city's 8,720 meter-heads are haywire, gobbling coins at an unfair rate and shortchanging consumers sometimes by as much as a third of an hour. Aside from the untold thousands of dollars lost in unrequited time, parkers end up wrongly paying another $5 million in overtime fines due to the short-shrift meters, he guesses. The city, which counts on $13 million in revenue from overtime penalties, has consciously skirted the problem, thinks Berman, who is seeking a moratorium on tickets.
Mayor Paul Schell and other city officials admit that some meters are faulty but claim they've not had the funds to fix them all. Ken Schram of KOMO TV, who has been reporting on our cheating meters for two years and is due the credit Berman is getting, has documented a situation which appears to go far beyond a mere lack of funds. Last year, for example, Schram's random time tests on 10 meters in different parts of the city turned up shortages of 8, 10, and 12 minutes. Spokesperson Liz Rankin of SeaTrans, which oversees meter operations, then fessed up that in fact, "About 30 percent of the meters are doing what we call short-timing, not giving the full number of minutes that people paid for."
She said consumers should appeal to the courts. "If the meter's not working, the ticket will be rescinded," she said.
Generally, though, most of us never notice we've lost a few coins to time and assume that if ticketed, we deserved it. Now Schram's recent retesting shows as many as 40 percent of the meters are malfunctioning, and, despite raking in $10 million in general meter revenues each year, City Hall is still saying its pockets are short and citizens must fend for themselves. For the city to knowingly continue this practice seems nothing short of consumer fraud—an aspect, it turns out, that is being carefully reviewed by the state attorney general's office.
The publicity may prompt more wronged parkers to ask for money back. And a backtracking Mayor Schell now says he misspoke himself: It will take three months, not three years, to fix the meters, causing Berman to slack off on his moratorium quest. Here's another suggestion: How about a moratorium on the mayor's free use of a city limousine and parking spot? Let him compete on the street with the rest of us. Maybe he can get that fix down to three minutes.