Imagine Fighting Your Next PPA Ticket Via Skype

And five more ways the city agency could improve with technology.

Yes, I watched a few episodes of Parking Wars, the reality show on A&E that followed the antics of various employees at the Philadelphia Parking Authority for the show’s first few seasons. Yes, I’m a fan of Steve Garfield, OK? And yes, like everyone else, I’m certain that the prisoners at Abu Ghraib received better treatment than I’ve received from PPA employees when paying at the Philadelphia Airport garages (hint: use the self-service checkouts; the machines are much friendlier), or others have faced when dealing with an unfair ticket. And so I was expecting the worst when I decided to visit PPA’s Parking Violations Branch at 913 Filbert Street to contest two parking tickets I received within 24 hours last May, both for the same violation.

My inspection sticker was expired. I was at fault. But two tickets in 24 hours? And both issued by the PPA? I didn’t even realize they had the authority to issue tickets for inspection violations. I was in the wrong, I know. But a friend told me to take a shot and contest the tickets. I’m a small-business owner. And although the great part of my work is outside of the city limits I’m still in and out of the city frequently for business meetings, conferences, lunches, dinners and other events. I’ve never received a ticket before (well, that’s actually not true, I received a violation in January 2010, also for an expired inspection ticket but let’s not let the facts get in the way of this story, OK?). It’s time to fight!

And so I went down to the PPA’s Bureau of Administration Adjudication last week prepared for a fight. And this is what I found: The PPA could use a lot of improvement. But for a city agency that’s (deservedly) received a large share of abuse over the past few years, it’s not as badly run as some may think.

So first, some advice for the PPA’s executive director, Vince Fenerty. Guy to guy. Manager to manager. Violator to … non-violator.

Use the Internet—even more. If a citizen wants to contest a ticket you can go to the PPA’s website and request a hearing date, which is then issued online with a paper copy sent by mail. You can also pay your tickets online too. That’s a good step forward. But with a little investment, the PPA can be doing much more. This goes for any department in any city, with the exception of Stockton, California and Scranton, which I’m pretty sure can’t afford paper towels for their City Hall bathrooms.

The idea is to avoid all those people I encountered waiting in line at the offices. The idea is for me not to have to listen to some creepy old guy in shorts, tube socks and a wife beater muttering behind me about Jesus Christ, Regis Philbin and “the bureaucracy.” The idea is for people not to have to wait for 45-60 minutes beyond their hearing time, when they get angry and frustrated. The idea is not to eliminate everyone who goes to 913 Filbert, but just to cut down the numbers. By doing so you avoid confrontations, reduce overhead, increase productivity and relieve the stress of those PPA employees who (very professionally too by the way) are trying hard to keep up with the demand.

How does a city agency like this use the Internet better? If I want to contest a ticket, let me file the complaint through a web form. Allow me to scan and upload my supporting documentation (i.e. the inspection report I received when I took my car to the mechanic two days later). Developers are cheap. Storage space is cheap. Let me state my case from my home or office. Dedicate some PPA employees to handle this work; they can work remotely from home too. Make me sign an electronic oath and make me agree to be available, if needed, to discuss my case by phone or (gasp) even by Skype if the case officer requires. Give me incentives to contest my ticket online. Like a reduced fine if I choose to contest this way (or an extra penalty if I choose to come in person and use up more city resources). I fully realize that many people for many reasons will still want to contest their tickets face to face. But that number can be reduced. And that’s what we’re after.

Some other suggestions for the PPA: Give me an incentive not to contest … like a 10 percent penalty if I lose my argument. Treat city residents (and those who work in the city) better than those annoying non-city residents (like me) by giving them priority attention or discounts. These people need a break. If people choose to head to 913 Filbert Street, have an automated check-in kiosk (visit any Verizon store, and you’ll see what I mean), instead of requiring us to stand in a long line. Respect everyone’s privacy by calling out people by case numbers, not their names. Have a monitor showing wait times or at least the next three cases to be called so we have a clue how long we’ll be waiting. By the way, none of this applies to any violators with more than three outstanding parking tickets. You have my permission to shoot them.

For the record, my experience at the PPA wasn’t so bad. Employees were professional and patient. The office was clean. No smoking, eating or (thank God!) cell phone talking was allowed. More importantly, anyone entering had to go through a metal detector. People get pretty worked up about their parking tickets, so thank God for that too. When it was my turn I was taken back to an office and seen by an employee who was formal, polite and professional. That may have been because his supervisor was there monitoring the meeting, but I suspect he’s like that all the time.

In the end, we settled. I paid for one ticket. The PPA waived the other ticket. I also received a stern lecture about the law and that this compromise was unlikely to happen again. I was told that the PPA can issue as many violations as it wants until the situation is resolved. I deserved it. I also saved $41. Unfortunately, after paying the $14 for parking in a nearby PPA lot, I netted a whopping $27 for this little expedition instead of being at work and billing my clients.

Hmm … maybe the PPA isn’t the only one needing some sound business advice.