Brown bag lunch or show trial?

Its organizer, City Council member Richard McIver, called it a brown bag forum; City Attorney Mark Sidran dubbed it a "show trial."

Whichever label you choose, last week's lunchtime critique of the city's new towing law seems likely to spark reform of the year-old program. The Drive to Survive critics of the law received a sympathetic reception from the forum audience, most significantly the five council members present. Absent from the discussion were any opposing opinions—significantly, neither Sidran nor any representative from his office made the invite list (or so the city attorney says—a McIver aide stated that Sidran's office was contacted).

Which is a shame, because both sides can sling some wicked facts and figures. Drive to Survive leaders like Hayward Evans of the Central Area Motivation Program and public defender Lisa Daugaard point out that the well-paid elected officials who pass such laws don't properly consider their effects on poor people. Let's use the example of $480 fine charged to motorists caught driving without liability insurance. Generally, the offender is uninsured because they can't afford the premiums. If the fine isn't paid, the court issues a warrant and the state suspends the offender's driver's license. Then, the next time the driver is pulled over, they can be jailed on the resulting warrant and their car seized. Figuring in a $94 tow charge and $20 per day in storage fees, Daugaard says it's not uncommon for an unpaid citation for driving without insurance to quickly spiral into $1,200 to $2,000 in penalties.

Evans and Daugaard also note 39 percent of the vehicles seized since January 1999 under the new law were the property of African Americans. More than half of the total impoundments were cars owned by people of color. They also packed some persuasive horror stories, such as drivers who have successfully challenged traffic stops in court, yet are unable to keep their cars from being auctioned off by towing companies.

But City Attorney Sidran comes to the debate armed with figures of his own. Despite the high number of blacks who have had cars impounded, he says the same figures show that 97 percent of whites ticketed for driving with a suspended license got their cars towed, as compared to just 85 percent of blacks. "It raises some question about the notion of cop-on-the-street bias," he says.

The impoundment law doesn't target poor people but folks who simply ignore traffic tickets, Sidran contends. The towing program was aimed at getting drivers with suspended licenses to clear up their cases and pay their fines, to get offenders with limited means into time-payment programs, and to reduce the number of scofflaw drivers booked into King County Jail. Last year, the city grossed $837,000 in payments from drivers clearing up license suspensions, put drivers representing another $325,000 in fines into time-payment programs, and reduced jail bookings in these cases by 17 percent. The impoundment program, Sidran says, has proven that when people's cars are threatened "their hearts and minds, and ultimately wallets, follow."

Maybe so, but part of the impetus behind mandatory auto insurance and the impoundment program is to get people that can't afford cars off the roads. And, as King County prepares to cut bus routes and scale back service due to Initiative 695, poor people will have fewer transportation alternatives to get to jobs, drop kids at day care, and run necessary errands. In a society where people must "drive to survive," the council is right to consider fine-tuning the impoundment law.

Council member Nick Licata has a reform proposal on the table. Licata's amendment would continue the confiscation of cars belonging to habitual traffic offenders and persons serving mandatory license suspensions for crimes such as drunk driving, but would exempt those whose licenses were suspended for unpaid fines.

Another fishy deal

After squandering a slew of volunteer hours creating a review procedure for public/private partnerships, the Seattle City Council has killed any chance to create confidence in the process. When council member Nick Licata correctly tried to have the Seattle Aquarium's expansion plans put through the mandated review, a majority of his colleagues objected. The council rule-shirkers threatened to pull the issue from his committee unless the aquarium was given fast-track treatment, minus the unwieldy public/private review. The agreement between the aquarium and the city, which is technically nonbinding, pledges $21.4 million in public money to the expansion.

This approach seems unlikely to boost public confidence that public/private partnerships are a great deal. In fact, if the council were trying to make us suspicious about the aquarium project, this would be a good way to do it.

The great communicator

It's always nice to have something to look forward to. Tim Baker, former council candidate and erstwhile Charlie Chong aide, sent an e-mail to his former colleagues on the city-sponsored Pro Parks Committee, commiserating over the failure of parks funding legislation in Olympia. In it, Baker: 1) stated that the committee was just a tool of the Parks Department; 2) suggested selling the aquarium to Sea World; and 3) promised to be more outspoken in the future. That might take some doing.

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