The city has put its parking ticket crews in overdrive, issuing citations at a faster clip than last year, but a Tribune analysis of court records shows that the vast majority of tickets contested by motorists are thrown out.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago officials revealed that parking meter violations have grown by 13 percent to more than 161,000 so far this year, representing more than $8 million in potential fines.
Yet from January through March, almost three quarters of some 6,000 meter violations challenged in the city's administrative courts were dismissed after hearing officers ruled that drivers were not liable or the tickets contained errors, city officials said in response to the Tribune's FOIA request.
Tickets issued before the meter expired. Tickets issued after metered parking ended for the day. Tickets with wrong dates. Those were just some of the problems cited by motorists who complained.
But, at a time when City Hall is weathering a storm of controversy over failures in its $1.15 billion lease of all city parking meters, the numbers also show that fewer motorists are making the effort to challenge citations—less than 5 percent so far this year. Some are declining to fight a ticket just because they think they won't succeed, even though the ticket appears to be a mistake.
One case involved Chicagoan Bev Klein, who contacted the Tribune about what she considered an unjustified expired-meter ticket in April.
After enjoying a late-evening dinner with friends at a Korean barbecue restaurant near Argyle Street, she returned to her car to find a ticket. The time stamp on the ticket was 9:10 p.m., but the sticker on the meter where Klein parked said the $1-per-hour parking rate was in effect only until 9 p.m.
"I thought about fighting the ticket, but a friend of mine who is a cop told me not to waste my time because I wouldn't win," she said.
The fine is $50 for an expired meter in Chicago.
Out of 6,196 parking meter tickets that drivers contested in the first three months of the year, 4,459 were dismissed on the grounds that the drivers were not guilty as charged or for other reasons, such as errors in writing the tickets. Only 1,737 tickets were upheld by hearing officers, records show.
That adds up to 72 percent of the challenged tickets being dismissed. By contrast, during the first four months of 2008, the dismissal rate was about 68 percent.
The FOIA response, from the city's Department of Administrative Hearings, showed that the number of metered parking spaces is up to about 36,500 this year from about 34,000 spaces in April 2008.
City officials downplayed the seemingly high rate of ticket dismissals, noting that ultimately only 4,459 of a total 161,000 issued tickets were canceled during the first three months of the year.
"That is a very small fraction of all tickets issued," said Ed Walsh, spokesman at the Chicago Department of Revenue.
The city's more aggressive enforcement in nearly all categories of parking violations is linked to the Daley administration's attempt to maximize fine collections and improve the city's bleak budget picture. But the public has expressed outrage over meter fee hikes and problems associated with the city's decision to privatize parking meters and several hundred pay-and-display parking machines that let drivers pay for a preset amount of time.
The city in February turned over management and all revenue generated from on-street parking over the next 75 years to a consortium called Chicago Parking Meters LLC, in return for the upfront payment of $1.15 billion. LAZ Parking, based in Hartford, Conn., is operating the parking system for the consortium. Under the contract, Chicago Parking Meters LLC retains all parking revenue, while the city continues to collect fines from violations.
But problems quickly surfaced. They ranged from poor preparation by LAZ to take over such a large meter system to the company's failure to repair broken meters and regularly empty the coin banks in the meters, which often filled up with quarters and jammed after meter rates quadrupled this year. On May 27, about 250 pay-and-display boxes—many of them new devices recently installed—failed in the downtown area.
The city's inspector general on Tuesday issued a report blasting the meter lease, saying the city lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the deal.
The report did not address the increase in tickets or the rate at which contested tickets are being dismissed.
Numerous factors can be responsible for tickets being voided in administrative court. Among the top reasons are an incorrect address for the meter location or the wrong date on the ticket, and city officials say they maintain strict standards.
"Hearing officers are trained to make sure the city has stated a prima facie case in terms of what [city officials] have submitted with the ticket," said Steve Sheely, assistant director of the Department of Administrative Hearings.
Drivers who contest the tickets also can present evidence to the hearing officers or via mail showing that no infraction occurred. Motorists found liable can pay the $50 fine before it escalates, or invest time and money filing an appeal in Cook County Circuit Court.
In some cases, though, a hearing officer's decision to uphold a ticket raised eyebrows as well. Kevin Reeves, who works as a quality manager, tried to contest a parking ticket in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. He parked his Honda in a legal parking space served by a pay-and-display box outside 3234 N. Clark St. on Jan. 28, and the receipt he placed in his windshield said his parking time would expire at 8:52 p.m.
Still, he was issued a ticket stamped 8:27 p.m., written by an "Officer Nowling."
Reeves, 35, thought the ticket was so clearly a mistake that he contested the violation by mail instead of requesting an in-person hearing, sending the city a letter along with a copy of the pay-and-display stub and the ticket. "I thought there was no reason to take time off from work to appeal a cut-and-dried matter," he said.
But Reeves received a ruling that he lost. "It is the finding of the administrative law officer that the information submitted supports a determination that the violation occurred," said the decision, signed by Robert L. Agusto, a hearing officer. No explanation was provided.
"The whole dispute process makes me more mad than anything," said Reeves, who paid the $50 fine after contacting his alderman several times and getting no response.