Red tape is roadblock in parking ticket fight Papers get lost, fine mushrooms


September 20, 1993

Adrienne Baker was at wit's end.

In one hand was a letter stating that a fine on a Baltimore parking ticket had climbed to $153 because payment was overdue. In the other was an Aug. 30 notice from the state Motor Vehicle Administration declaring that she could forget about renewing her car registration until the city fine was paid.

Bad enough the parking ticket was undeserved in the first place, Mrs. Baker says, but to cap it all off, no one would let her have a day in court to prove it.

All the little bits of anger that had built up from eight years of battling crime, taxes and other complications of Charm City living coalesced in Mrs. Baker's mind at that moment.

"When we came here from Orchard Park [in suburban Buffalo, N.Y.] we heard all these wonderful things about living in the city," says Mrs. Baker. "We took a place, renovated it, and thought we'd become urban dwellers. Boy, was that a mistake."

The tangle with government bureaucracy began when Mrs. Baker's daughter, Julie, drove to school on Sept. 11 of last year. Unbeknown to Miss Baker, a Hollywood crew was shooting footage for the film "Sleepless in Seattle" in the Mount Vernon area that day.

A student at Peabody Conservatory, Miss Baker parked her parents' 1985 Volvo at her favorite spot near the school on TC Friday morning. But after she strode into Peabody, that side of the street was designated a no-parking zone to accommodate the film crew.

When she returned two hours later, she found a $32 citation on the windshield.

Unfair, Miss Baker decided, and vowed to fight.

First, following directions on the ticket, she mailed it to the city's parking fines office to get a court date. She heard nothing -- until a notice arrived informing her parents (the owners of the car) that their parking fine was overdue and penalties were mounting.

"Pay the ticket," advised her father, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"Wouldn't be right, Dad," she responded.

The enterprising Miss Baker found out that she could get a court hearing by petitioning District Court. She did so and, some weeks later, received a notice that her petition had been accepted.

Weeks and then months passed with no word about a court date. Inexplicably, another letter arrived in August warning the Bakers to pay the ticket.

Miss Baker marched right back to District Court and discovered there was no record of her petition. So she petitioned again.

Eventually, the 23-year-old left for New York to continue her violin studies.

This month, the family was advised in response to the second petition that it was unlikely a court date would be assigned before the end of October, when the car's registration is due to expire.

Enter The Intrepid Commuter.

After a week's worth of detective work, we confirmed that neither the court nor the parking fines office had a record of Miss Baker's first petition. But when we produced a copy of that document, the office set a court date immediately.

What appears to have happened is that the letter containing Miss Baker's copy of the ticket was misplaced as well as the first court petition.

The Bakers were the victims of coincidental bungling.

"This doesn't happen very often," says Beverly Crosby, a city collections supervisor. "But we deal with 500 or more petitions on a monthly basis."

In the interest of fairness, we also note that when Miss Baker sent her copy of the ticket, she failed to do so by registered mail as the ticket instructs.

As for the alleged parking violation, the city's acting parking division chief says it's quite possible Miss Baker's story is true.

"The people who enforce no-parking areas are not the same ones who bag meters," says Leonard H. Addison. "We get strange situations like this every once in a while."

We wish the Bakers well when they finally get their day in court on Sept. 29. And while city officials proved to be quite helpful in solving this problem, we hope that the mishandling of the ticket was as exceptional as Ms. Crosby suggests.

Between July 1, 1992, and June 30 of this year, the city's 68 parking agents issued 300,000 citations. That represents a lot of opportunity to mislay.

Light rail: the long and the short of it

Why do light rail trains always seem to be composed of two cars coupled together even when running near empty?

The question was posed to us by Sundial caller Ruth Wolf Rehfeld of Mount Vernon who reasons that this extra capacity must be costly.

Sometimes she sees three cars hooked together.

"Aren't they easy to couple and uncouple?" Ms. Rehfeld asks. "Isn't that the whole point?"

For an answer, we contacted MTA Deputy Administrator James F. Buckley, who tells us that, yes, the cars can be uncoupled and that the MTA tries to match the number of cars in a train with the demand. During rush hour, the MTA runs three-car trains; in moderate traffic at midday, two, and in the early morning and late evening, one.

Trains can be reconfigured at the end points -- Timonium or Cromwell Station -- or at the light rail depot at North Avenue.

Keep in mind that an empty train in Lutherville may be packed by the time it reaches Cherry Hill.

Counting electricity and maintenance, the cost of running a car is only about $1.10 a mile. That doesn't include the greatest expense, the operator's salary, which is the same whether it's one car or three. "We don't want to err on the side of people standing in the aisles," Mr. Buckley says.

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