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Volunteer parking ticketeers draw praises, criticism

4/8/04 - Laurel Leader, Maryland, April 2004

by Harold Goodridge

If you have exceeded the two-hour parking limit on Main Street in recent years, you may have noticed that the city was lax in enforcing the restriction.

Not anymore.

If you have exceeded the two-hour limit during the last few months, chances are you got a $25 parking citation, thanks to a group of volunteers for the Laurel Police Department who have been authorized to write tickets.

"We're having fun," said Pat Walsh, owner of the Something Special coffee shop at 504 Main St. and a founding member of the Laurel Citizens' Police Academy Alumni Association. "You get a feeling of truly helping."

The parking crackdown stems from complaints from Main Street merchants that some business owners and their employees were parking on the street all day, taking valuable spaces from customers.

The city has had the two-hour restriction on its books for more than 20 years. But police spokesman Jim Collins said a lack of manpower at the department previously made it difficult to enforce.

" Main Street has always had a parking problem," Collins said. "The city was without a parking enforcement officer during the last few years."

Collins said the city has a paid parking enforcement officer now, but the officer doubles as the city's animal control officer and has other duties as well. "His (parking enforcement) time is limited to a few hours a day," Collins said.

Cheryl Hinchliffe, owner of Sabatelli's Salon at 358 Main St. , said she was pleased with the increased enforcement. Many of her clients use wheelchairs and walkers, Hinchliffe said, and they had been unable to park or get dropped off in front of her business because employees of neighboring businesses were parking there all day long. "It's getting better," she said.

"It's freeing up more spaces on the street," said Jhanna Levin, president of the Friends of Laurel's Historic Main Street and owner of L&L Gifts and Gourmet at 512 Main St. "Our customers need parking, and people who need to park for 17 hours at a time need to park somewhere else."

Citizens to the rescue

Laurel police Chief David Moore swore in Walsh and five other members of the alumni association in September, authorizing them to patrol city parks, write parking tickets and serve in other areas of law enforcement.

The members are taking their duties seriously. "We told the mayor and the police chief to watch where they park," Walsh said.

Before they were authorized to conduct police business, the auxiliary unit had to complete courses in confrontation management, writing tickets and using the police radio system.

Other members of the unit are Al Burley, Brandon Braunlich, Mark Schmidt, Eileen Lavin and Jenifer Napora.

"I enjoy it," said Lavin, who is a city hall employee. "I've seen an improvement on Main Street . We're seeing people scurry when we come. They're getting used to us.

"Many store owners are thanking us, and that's nice to hear," she added.

The auxiliary meet at the coffee shop in the morning to discuss duties for the day. The crew then hits the street, marking tires with chalk.

They go back two hours later and, if the car is still there, write a ticket.

Walsh said the auxiliary wrote nothing but warnings in December. In January, the first day they began writing real tickets, they issued 24.

Walsh said people are getting the message. After 88 tickets issued in January and 82 in February, the number declined to 65 in March.

On a given day now, they only write six or seven, Walsh said.

Ronald Sargent, owner of Outback Leather in the 300 block of Main Street , has gotten the message. He received three tickets in one week in January and six tickets in all.

"They haven't enforced this in three years," Sargent said. "I shouldn't have to pay for parking here." on his property. "Where do they expect me to park?" he said.

He said he had to plead with the city before he received a parking pass given to residents in the Main Street area.

Several hair and nail salon owners also have complained. Alecia Browder, owner of Creative Concepts at 338 Main St. , said she was ticketed three times and a client was also ticketed. She said clients sometimes stay in her salon longer than two hours to have their hair done.

Browder and some other merchants complained about the enforcement to Mayor Craig Moe at a Laurel Board of Trade meeting last month. Moe said the city is aware that some businesses have real parking issues, but he didn't have an answer for their concerns.

"There are businesses with legitimate parking concerns," Levin said. "Either their landlord didn't set up parking for them or their building doesn't have parking, but that's the exception. A majority of the people are just lazy" for not utilizing designated all-day parking areas.

See you in court

Walsh has been to court three times as a result of people contesting their citations. He said he has enjoyed the experience.

"One woman told the judge, 'I've been parking there for three years,'" Walsh said. "The judge said, 'That's not an excuse.' "

"Another woman tried to get off on a technicality because I wrote 'Hyundai,' " on the ticket "and she had a Honda," Walsh said. After confirming it was the same tag number, the woman had to pay her fine.

"It's fun," Walsh said. "I haven't lost a case yet. I'm batting 100 percent."

Walsh said he has been confronted several times by irate people who have been ticketed. He said the auxiliary unit always treats violators with respect, "even if they're cursing you."

"I've had people tell me, 'I pay your salary,' " Walsh said, laughing. "They say, 'Don't you have anything better to do?' and I say, 'No, I don't.' People also yell, 'Why aren't you out catching drug dealers and real criminals?' "

That's exactly what the police auxiliary is helping Laurel police to do, said Lt. Bob Althoff, who oversees the unit. Sargent is one of a few business owners with no parking available

"They're an extreme asset to us," Althoff said. "We can use our time to look for violators of crime. They can do things we don't always have time to do.

The auxiliary unit also helps police with parking enforcement throughout the city, data entry, foot patrols of city parks, and traffic control during festivals, parades and emergencies.

Walsh said he expects the six-man auxiliary unit to grow to 15 in the near future.

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