Mayor Lori Lightfoot said City Hall would only issue parking tickets for safety violations early in the pandemic. 35,000 car owners received tickets anyway.

With schools closed, restaurants shut down and an economic collapse looming in the early weeks of the pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced plans to stop ticketing, booting and impounding cars throughout the city to ease financial pressures on Chicagoans.

a sign on a pole: A city parking sign in the 700 block of West Adams Street where Xavier Santos received two parking tickets in early April amid the coronavirus pandemic.

© Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
A city parking sign in the 700 block of West Adams Street where Xavier Santos received two parking tickets in early April amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The only ticketing that is going to be happening is if there is a car or other vehicle posing some kind of public safety threat. But the normal ticketing should be suspended until April 30,” she said during a March 18 news conference. “So, for example, an expired meter that is otherwise legally parked and not posing a public safety threat, you should not be getting ticketed.”

Try telling that to Michaela Spence of Bronzeville, who was parked outside her doctor’s office.

Or Joseph Wasif, a pharmacist who drove to work in the Loop rather than risk his patients’ health by taking the train.

Or Kurt Schauer of Evanston, who ran into his River North office to pick up supplies.

Try telling that to anyone else who got hit with one of the more than 35,000 parking tickets the city issued during the period Lightfoot told the public they’d be getting a break.

“It’s a betrayal, just absolutely ridiculous,” said Spence, who received a $70 parking ticket for an expired meter April 10. “It puts people in a tough financial position at the absolute worst time. It’s just a really shady thing to do.”

A Tribune analysis of city parking data found that nearly half of the tickets were given to cars for expired meters in the downtown area — an infraction Lightfoot specifically had singled out as exempted from punishment.

Behind the scenes, the Lightfoot administration declared expired meter parking anywhere in the central business district to be a threat to public safety and directed ticketing to continue, according to documents obtained through an open records request. The public wasn’t told about that change in tactics, however.

In all, about 70% of tickets citywide were issued for reasons the mayor had suggested would be given a pass: Parking without a proper city sticker or a valid residential permit (3,111); for having expired plates (2,009); for being stopped during rush-hour times (984) or early morning snow-zone parking (66); or being parked at expired meters both inside and outside the downtown area (17,564).

Nearly 1 in every 5 tickets later were dismissed by City Hall or an administrative hearing officer, analysis of city data shows. Most people did not appeal or simply paid them without a fight.

Though most tickets were written in the downtown area, the Tribune found more than 13,000 instances where vehicles were ticketed outside the central business district. Citations were most often written in Black and Latino neighborhoods, communities already struggling with the coronavirus’ devastating impact on public health and unemployment rates.

a man riding a skateboard on top of a car: Neil Paule, 29, next to his car at 2929 West Belmont Avenue in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood where he received a rush hour-zone parking ticket on March 18.

© Jos M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Neil Paule, 29, next to his car at 2929 West Belmont Avenue in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood where he received a rush hour-zone parking ticket on March 18.

Lightfoot officials declined to be interviewed for this story. A city spokeswoman denied that the mayor ever said parking tickets wouldn’t be issued for expired meters or other non-safety reasons.

“Mayor Lightfoot didn’t say we would only be ticketing for safety reasons — she said we would emphasize safety reasons. Safety reasons included double parking, blocking fire hydrant, etc.,” spokeswoman Kristen Cabanban wrote in an email.

But audio from the mayor’s 38-minute news conference shows that Lightfoot twice said tickets would “only” be issued for safety reasons. Lightfoot also stated — twice — that expired parking meters were the kind of infraction that would not be considered a public safety threat, though she said drivers should still feed the meters.

a man that is standing in the middle of the street: Xavier Santos on Sept. 13, 2020, in the 700 block of West Adams, where he received two parking tickets in early April amid the coronavirus pandemic.

© Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Xavier Santos on Sept. 13, 2020, in the 700 block of West Adams, where he received two parking tickets in early April amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And the mayor was clear that she would push the private parking company that owns and enforces Chicago’s metered spaces to follow suit.

“We’re going to be working with them to make sure that the only ticketing that is going to be happening is if there is a car or other vehicle posing some kind of public safety threat,” Lightfoot said.

Underscoring the mayor’s pledge, city Comptroller Reshma Soni added, “We are limiting all our parking tickets to only public-safety related items.”

‘The way they go about it’

As complaints started rolling in that the city was still issuing tickets, Lightfoot slightly tweaked her message about parking enforcement. Instead of saying that tickets would only be given for public safety violations, the mayor told reporters on March 24 that the “emphasis is supposed to be limited to public safety reasons.”

Lightfoot again singled out expired parking meters as something she did not consider to be a public safety threat, though she repeated that drivers would have to keep feeding the meters. She said the message would be conveyed to Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the private meter company that made a one-time payment of $1.15 billion to the city a dozen years ago in return for the right to keep all the meter revenue and raise the rates over the course of the 75-year lease.

“So obviously we need to continue to be in conversation with them about where the emphasis should be placed, but members of the public should know this isn’t just free parking for the duration,” Lightfoot said. “So things like fire hydrants, blocking key entrances to buildings, things along those lines, those are things where we want the emphasis to be placed instead of parking meters.”

Three days later, Lightfoot’s administration wrote a letter directing the company to ticket expired parking meters in the downtown area effective immediately. It contradicted what she’d told the public, but Chicagoans were not made aware of the switch.

According to the March 27 letter, the city deemed parking violations throughout the entire central business district to be a safety risk because of the amenities located there.

“Access to government offices, hospitals and hotels cannot be impeded by illegal parking, including metered spaces,” states the letter signed by Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer. “Police, fire and other first responders performing essential public safety functions cannot be hampered in their duties due to any type of illegal parking in these zones.”

In effect, City Hall was suggesting that a vehicle parked at a paid meter was safer than a car parked at an unpaid one. The Tribune asked a Lightfoot administration spokeswoman to explain the logic, but she declined.

During the first six weeks of the mayor’s pandemic parking directive, the majority of tickets were issued in Chicago’s central business district, the area bounded by Roosevelt Road to the south, North Avenue to the north, Halsted Street to the west and Lake Michigan to the east. Although the area assumed a post-apocalyptic feel as companies ordered employees to work from home and tourism ground to a halt, more tickets were given within those borders than all other parts of the city combined.

It was in the city’s financial interest to grant Chicago Parking Meters permission to ticket for expired meters in its most profitable areas, given the constraints of the much-maligned meter privatization deal carved out during Richard M. Daley’s administration. If the city waives meter parking, even temporarily, it must pay the “full value” of the spot to the private company.

Last year, the city’s tab was about $11 million for metered streets closed for festivals, construction and other reasons, according to an audit obtained by Chicago attorney Clint Krislov, director of the Center for Open Government at Chicago-Kent College of Law. If Lightfoot had kept her pledge to halt tickets for expired meters across the downtown, the city could have owed millions more in make-good payments to the private company.

For the roughly 16,500 tickets issued for expired downtown meters from March 18 to April 30 alone, the city already has collected about $558,000. It could bring in as much as $405,440 more as unpaid tickets are reconciled.

The city will keep all of that money, according to its arrangement with the parking vendor. Lightfoot is looking for cash where she can find it, as the city faces an estimated $1.2 billion budget shortfall next year.

“That’s the money the city sorely needs because no one was down there (during the early weeks of the pandemic),” said Schauer, who received a ticket for an expired meter in late April. “They’re going to try to get it anyway they can and I understand that. It’s the way they go about it that everyone hates.”

The city’s parking ticket policy isn’t the first time Lightfoot’s words haven’t lived up to her actions in recent months.

Under pressure to offer solutions as Chicago reeled from days of widespread looting earlier this summer, Lightfoot announced a $10 million fund to help shop owners rebuild ransacked businesses. But behind the scenes, the fund morphed into primarily a COVID benefit for businesses that lost revenue due to the pandemic, and officials paid out just $232,760 in funds designated to help looted business.

In May, Lightfoot declared that the popular Playpen boating area would be closed for the summer, and her administration doubled down on the claim. But it’s actually the Coast Guard with authority to take action, so the party went on.

No safety threat

Wasif received one of those “expired meter” tickets five days after Lightfoot’s announcement when he decided to drive from his Lincoln Park home to his job as a pharmacist in the Loop. With a heavy emphasis placed on social distancing and the many unknowns about how the virus spread in those early days, Wasif believed then — as he does now — that he could best serve his patients by avoiding public transportation and limiting his own potential exposure.

He parked at a metered spot on a deserted Wabash Avenue on March 23, the first workday following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-home order. When Wasif’s shift ended hours later, he returned to find a bright orange ticket on his windshield.

“I was annoyed and surprised,” Wasif said. “I literally just watched her say how she wasn’t going to ticket anybody unless it was a safety issue, which this wasn’t. It was a normal pay-to-park area.”

Orphe Divounguy, chief economist with the conservative-funded Illinois Policy Institute, understands why people may have felt misled by the Lightfoot administration. He received a ticket for an expired meter in the Streeterville neighborhood just two days after the mayor’s March 18 announcement.

Having heard the mayor’s message, he called City Hall to resolve what he assumed had been an error on the enforcement officer’s part. He said he was told that the mayor never waived tickets for expired meters and he would have to pay.

“The city made a promise it couldn’t keep and who paid for it?” Divounguy said. “For families that can’t afford that extra expense, this is a serious problem, especially in the current economy when so many people have lost their jobs. We’re in the middle of a recession. You cannot possibly be imposing these regressive fines and taxes on people.”

Outside the downtown area, the ZIP codes most often ticketed were in Belmont Cragin, Chicago Lawn, Austin, Humboldt Park and South Lawndale. Those neighborhoods, home to many Black and Latino residents, also were among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in terms of confirmed cases and unemployment rates, further emphasizing the racial inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

“Those are the neighborhoods that have the most police presence, so you’re probably going to have more opportunity to get your city sticker discovered as expired. Also they’re neighborhoods where people don’t have as much clout as Lakeview or Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast,” said Samuel Kling, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who has studied the ramifications of the parking meter deal.

“Furthermore, there’s a very long history of this stuff — Black neighborhoods being targeted and poor neighborhoods being targeted, and nothing’s really changed on that front.”

Seeking dismissals

City parking data shows 6,821 tickets given between March 18 and April 30, or 19%, had been dismissed as of mid-August. The Tribune, however, found dismissals were inconsistent.

The city issued more than 2,200 to vehicles without a city sticker, but later dismissed most of them and the $200 fine associated with the citation. However, as of mid-August, more than 220 recipients of city-sticker violations had paid their dismissed tickets.

A Lightfoot administration spokeswoman told the Tribune that anyone who had paid a ticket that later was deemed “dismissed” should call the city’s finance department for a refund.

Drivers who were ticketed for other reasons, such as expired meters and rush hour parking, had varying success in getting their fines overturned.

Xavier Santos, who lives in Greektown, received two tickets for leaving his car in a spot where parking is prohibited during rush hour. With the city shut down and traffic nonexistent in early April, he had believed the spot would be exempt from a citation per the mayor’s announcement.

“I was definitely confused and I was frustrated when I saw two tickets on my car,” he said. “Everything was changing so fast at that time. When you think something like parking is solved, then you come out to find another problem, that’s a challenge. I went online and battled both tickets.”

Santos’ three-paragraph defense proved successful, as an administrative judge dismissed both tickets.

A few miles to the north in the Avondale neighborhood, Neil Paule appealed a rush hour-zone parking ticket that he received March 18, the same day that the mayor made her announcement. An administrative judge determined the mayor’s own words weren’t legal justification for disobeying the sign.

Paule said he was told he could challenge the finding in court, which would cost money if he was unsuccessful, or pay $100. He chose the fine.

“It was a 24-hour news cycle of stress, anxiety and no sleep during that time,” Paule said. “The last thing I needed was the city trying to nickel-and-dime me when I’m more concerned about what’s been the most historical world event of my lifetime.”

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