Dear Mr. Bush, writes reader Cliff Anderson of Bellevue. "Surely you're not proposing that it's OK to drive without a license (and insurance, I suspect) as long as you're poor. Driving isn't a right, it's a privilege."
If only complex issues were so easily dispatched in two lines. It's clear that Cliff has quickly passed judgment and moved on; the Seattle City Council will probably follow his lead on June 26. There's not a lot of mystery about the fate of a proposal by council members Nick Licata and Richard McIver to scale back the city's car impoundment program—all nine council members have already announced their intentions and the amendment should fall by a 5-4 tally. Licata and McIver wanted to continue confiscating autos belonging to first- and second-degree violators (a category which includes most serious problem drivers) but let third-degree offenders (generally people whose licenses have been suspended for nonpayment of fines) keep their cars.
In recent years, the state Legislature has shown a great fondness for using drivers' license suspension as an enforcement tool against people ranging from folks who still owe money on traffic tickets to deadbeat dads behind on their child support payments. In 1997, about 7.6 percent of the state's 4.2 million licensed drivers were under suspension.
But the new license suspension provisions have upped the ante. In the old days, if you didn't pay a ticket, you played warrant roulette—you kept driving, but if pulled over for whatever reason, you had to pay the fine on the spot or go to jail. Under the new laws, these same drivers generally get charged with an additional offense, hit with another fine and—in Seattle at least—get the privilege of waving bye-bye to their car. And, if you can't pay your traffic tickets, how are you going to pay towing and storage charges?
Many people can't. About 30 percent of the cars seized are sold at auction, many for way better prices than the hulks the tow companies are used to dragging off city streets.
Critics of the Licata/McIver amendment say the proposed changes in the law would make things too easy on people who don't pay their tickets. They're right. Given the choice between an overly strict law proven to harshly penalize the poor and an overly lax law that goes easy on some folks who don't deserve the break, Licata and McIver have chosen to err on the side of compassion. In other words, they aren't doing the right thing, they're making the better of two flawed choices.
There's plenty of ugly symbolism behind this latest council vote. A study of the first year's car-grabbing showed that more than 40 percent of the 5,000 cars seized belonged to African-Americans (who make up less than 10 percent of the driving population). Gosh, mused the squishy council liberals, how could that have happened? On the eve of the vote, Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber presented a computer analysis of traffic citations showing that blacks are twice as likely to get traffic tickets than whites. The council majority was unmoved. Toss in the continuing interference of City Attorney Mark Sidran—who originally sold the plan as "jailing cars, not people," then broke his word and continued jailing people in addition to taking their cars—and it's easy to see why our low-income and minority populations feel they've been deserted by their representatives.
Our council members show compassion for the poor only when it involves bleating and posturing. Council member Jim Compton wants the council to issue a strong statement that unequal enforcement against minorities will not be tolerated in this town. How very noble. After hearing the sad tale of a Central Area couple left on the sidewalk miles from home (with the wife in a wheelchair and their grandchild in her arms, no less), council member Richard Conlin proposed that the council borrow some of Mayor Paul Schell's taxicab scrip and offer these carless folks a ride home. Thanks, Mr. Rogers. As for Heidi "Swing Vote" Wills' last-minute cave-in, she only opposed the Licata/McIver amendment once she'd satisfied herself that no circus animals would be harmed.
Activist Aaron Dixon told the council he'd prefer a day or two in jail to losing his car. A day in jail is over when you walk out; the loss of a car can take away social, educational, and employment opportunities. With bus service cut by one state initiative (I-695) and further threatened by another (the proposed anti-public transit I-745), there's a good reason why supporters of modifying the law call their organization Drive to Survive.
You don't say
Listening to politicians talk about transit can be a strange and wonderful experience.
Take City Council member Heidi Wills, who cautioned her colleagues to step softly as county officials debate how to distribute cuts in bus service resulting from tax-cutting Initiative 695. Well, actually what she said was: "I think we're between a rock and a hard place, but I don't want us to cut off our nose to spite our face." Heidi has apparently left behind that "baby with the bathwater" phrase which served her so well during the campaign.
And how can you beat her pugnacious colleague Richard McIver, who suggested going over the county's head and asking the Legislature to give Seattle control of all bus service within city limits. Then, he floated the idea that Seattle officials could withhold support of Ron Sims' sales tax increase proposal (to plug the I-695 hole in the transit budget) unless the county executive pledged to maintain in-city bus service at current levels regardless of the outcome.
"Blessed are the peacemakers," cautioned Council President Margaret Pageler.
"I'm not one of them," replied McIver.