U. of Md. parking policy is school's ticket to lucre

October 02, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON BEHALF of parking ticketees everywhere I wish, like Spiro Agnew, to plead nolo contendere. There, is everyone happy? I once set a college record for most parking tickets in a single semester, and if anyone around here should be blushing, it ain't me, and maybe it shouldn't be those basketball players pursued by the University of Maryland student newspaper, the Diamondback.

You read about this, didn't you? Yesterday we carried it on the front page of this very newspaper. The Diamondback wants to reveal names of basketball players at College Park who may have racked up big money in campus parking fines, and the university says, "Mind your own business."

The school says it's a privacy issue. The Diamondback says this is baloney, and I agree, but for different reasons. With the posturing of all great con artists, university officials say it's unfair to reveal student records, and they're keeping them secret only for the sake of the poor, sensitive athletes. This is more baloney, as everyone knows who has ever tried to park a car in College Park.

The University of Maryland only wishes to protect itself from the anger of all those who ever paid a tuition bill to the school and mistakenly assumed it wouldn't immediately turn them into fugitives from the law.

There are 50,000 students at the College Park campus, but enough parking spaces for only a small fraction of that number. You should witness the scenes on some of these parking lots, cars drifting and drifting, drivers desperate for a spot as the hour of class arrives. It's like watching the children of Israel trying to find their way out of the desert. Forty years, it seems to take.

You think parking in downtown Baltimore is bad? Well, compared with College Park, downtown Baltimore is like the parking lot at Hunt Valley Mall. Or it's like Memorial Stadium's lot on a weekday. In College Park, it's real bad.

So we're about to have the Diamondback take the University of Maryland to court. Tuesday in Annapolis, in the Court of Appeals, the student paper will argue that it has the right to report parking ticket violators because such information is part of a criminal record -- which it is. The school will say it's part of a student's

financial record -- which it also is -- and thus will cite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which forbids the release of such material.

All of which is not only a smoke screen, but also misses the point.

The real reason to print parking ticket violations of athletes is to indicate some sort of pampering going on. In this case, the Diamondback once reported the violations of a kid named Duane Simpkins, a guard pretty good at running Maryland's fast break but pretty awful at running up parking tickets.

In four years, Simpkins ran up $8,242 in parking fines. Then he was suspended for three games for accepting a $2,000 loan from a former coach so he could make a down payment on the fines. This is a violation of NCAA rules.

Also, it made Diamondback staffers wonder: Are there others like Simpkins?

It's a fair question. And, with such a history, university officials ought to understand this -- and probably do. But they also understand something else: Parking tickets are generally a reflection of a dreadful system on their campus, which is based partly on stupidity but partly on what looks like robbing students with both hands.

Many College Park students commute each day and thus need cars. Many more commute each weekend and thus need cars. But the school, quick to grab tuition money, room and board -- and parking fees -- knowingly fails to provide adequate places to park.

And, instead of the school catching heat for this, as it should, the burden falls on students simply trying to park and get to class. It isn't just ballplayers, either.

In my time, some of the biggest violators were Diamondback staffers ourselves. I racked up $300 in tickets one semester. I ran up such a figure because some of us worked late each night putting out the next day's paper, and we'd park on the lot next to the journalism building. In those late hours, the lot was empty. But we didn't have parking stickers for it, so we'd get ticketed.

A campus police lieutenant named O'Brien saw the lunacy in such action. At the end of the year, he kindly tore up all my tickets. The legend was, I'd broken the campus record, previously set by a kid named Carl Bernstein. Bernstein never got his tickets fixed, though, and thus had to leave school and break the Watergate story for the Washington Post. I would have done it myself, but Lt. O'Brien had to fix my crummy parking tickets.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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