CORNBREAD AND BUTTERMILK: Parking meter ‘Robin Hoods’

  • Posted: Monday, March 17, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Along with the good folks in Keene, N. H., I've been wondering how I feel about a band of young men who go around town feeding about-to-expire parking meters before the meter cops can get to them and leave unwanted tickets on the windshields.

The guys call themselves “Robin Hooders,” and not everybody is happy with what they're doing. The city, after all, relies on fines from parking violators to help fund the municipal budget.

One pastor voiced his indignant disapproval: “I think you guys are a couple of knuckleheads. Just because you have a right to be out here doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.”

I dislike parking meters; yet I believe we are obligated to obey legitimate laws – even those we disagree with.

But contributing a quarter to the meter to save somebody a $15 fine doesn't strike me as disobedience to the law. It sounds more like obeying the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I assume the good pastor is familiar with that rule and isn't opposed to it.

But the Robin Hooders don't just stop at running ahead of the meter cops and slipping coins into the slots. They videotape them doing their jobs and sometimes verbally harass them.

One meter monitor angrily told a “Hooder”: “If standing up for myself means smashing that camera over your head, so be it.”

Those confrontational tactics are where I would draw the line. I often find myself in basic agreement with the principles espoused by protesters, but uncomfortable with their tactics. I once interviewed a Catholic priest who said doctors who perform abortions deserved to be killed. At least two people connected with abortion services were murdered shortly after he circulated a cartoon expressing these sentiments. I shared his abhorrence for abortions, but not his endorsement of murder as a means to stop them.

When a city sets up parking meters and demands that we pay for the time our vehicles are parked on city property, I grudgingly feed the meter, if I have the change.

I used to drive the hundred miles or so from Norfolk to Richmond fairly regularly on assignments from my newspaper. It was usually to cover a meeting of some state agency, and I had to park on the street for the duration of the meeting.

With no parking facility nearby, I would have to park in a metered space and feed the meter the maximum. Often the meeting would last longer than my coins, and I would find a parking ticket from the city of Richmond on my windshield.

Once I ignored the ticket; after all, I was in a company car and was there on company business, so I figured the company ought to pay the fine. As it happened, my publisher got a summons from the city of Richmond to appear in traffic court and explain why he didn't pay for the ticket. Fortunately, we were able to make arrangements for our Richmond staffer to pay the fine, and I had to reimburse him. The publisher didn't buy with my reasoning that I was on company business and therefore the company ought to pay. I paid the fine.

Was the city of Richmond wrong? Not if you agree that a city has a right to charge for the use of city property. Parking meter proceeds are a legitimate revenue source for cities, though they're counterproductive when they contribute to decay of downtown business. Parking meters certainly played a role in the flight of shoppers to the free parking that surrounds suburban shopping malls.

I balk at the idea that the Robin Hooders were depriving the city of funds. They were actually contributing funds to the parking meters. It was the fines for violating the parking ordinances that the city was losing. And I contend that it's a mistake for the city to rely on violators to flesh out its budget. The city should hope people would obey its regulations, and if some generous folks are willing to reach into their own pockets to keep others from violating them, then good for them.

I hope most jurisdictions have scrapped the old policy of paying policemen according to the number of tickets they wrote. This perverted justice by giving cops an incentive to write a ticket even when the violation was marginal or unintentional.

Many of us remember the infamous traffic light on U.S. 301 – the I-95 of its day – in Ludowici, Ga.

In those pre-interstate days, when you drove from the Northeast to Florida, you had to follow main routes that went through the centers of towns. In Georgia, that often meant dropping abruptly from 55 mph to 20 or even 15 mph.

Ludowici had a traffic light so situated and so timed that people entering at the speed limit scarcely had time to stop before the light caught them. A local cop was conveniently stationed just beyond the light so that he could nab the offenders immediately. The little town collected a large portion of its revenue by fining unwitting tourists – especially those with out-of-state tags.

The Ludowici light obviously was bad policy. So is the policy of basing your budget on the people who patronize your downtown and are sometimes unable to get back to their vehicles in time to replenish the parking meter. Maybe Keene could solve the problem of the “Hooders” by removing its parking meters and adding a cent or two to the property tax on motor vehicles.

It might mean caving in to the “Hooders,” but it would free the town from reliance on the foibles of downtown patrons to pay its bills.

Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may email him at WadesDixieco@AOL.com. For more of Gene's writings, visit www.wadesdixieco.com.

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