Dollars and Nonsense

For sale: one silly sign ordinance.

In New York City, they're throwing chump change at a $4 billion budget gap by fining 86-year-old men for illegally feeding pigeons, and teenagers for sitting on unauthorized milk crates.

In Denver, where next year's budget deficit is projected at $50 million, they nailed Larry Barnhart for trying to sell his car.

Barnhart considers himself a law-abiding fellow. So when he drove into downtown Denver from his home in Littleton three Mondays ago, he duly plugged the parking meter at 15th and Lawrence streets, pushing in quarter after quarter until he'd bought himself two hours of time. And then he went about his business.

Ninety minutes later, his errands complete, Barnhart returned to his van -- now festooned with a ticket. It wasn't for an expired meter; there were still thirty minutes showing on that. It wasn't for parking too far from the curb, or for a missing license plate, or for an expired emissions sticker -- all violations so common that they're listed on the Parking Violations Bureau's pre-printed tickets. No, Barnhart was cited for "For Sale Sign on Car," a violation of city ordinance 54-463.

Barnhart may be a law-abiding fellow, but he's also a curious one, and this law sounded very odd to him. So after searching in vain on the city's Web site for any information, he sent an e-mail to the address on the ticket, asking for details.

"You cannot solicit a vehicle for sale on city property," came the anonymous reply.

Which means that Barnhart had broken the law when he parked his 1986 Ford van, which had a "For Sale" sign in the window, at a downtown meter. In fact, he'd broken the law simply by driving that van into Denver at all.

"You would need to come in person or have someone come in person for you to contest the violation," anonymous continued. "The parking referee's office is open M-F 8am-4:30pm it is a walk in service."

Walk in, because you won't be able to drive there if your car has had a close encounter with the Denver boot.

Anyone who's not as law-abiding as Larry Barnhart probably knows about the Denver boot. And any scofflaw who's been parking downtown for two decades, as I have, knows all about it -- knows exactly how many tickets you have to get and how old they must be before you land on the boot list; knows when the boot truck patrols which neighborhoods and when it stops for the day; knows that while most private lots won't boot, some city lots managed by private companies are fair game for the boot truck (the Republic lots just off Speer at the edge of LoDo, for example); knows what to do once you've been nabbed. (One Westword employee collapsed in a heap on Wazee Street, where our office was located at the time, when she saw that her car had been booted for $700 in outstanding tickets -- far more than the car was worth. She let the city tow it into oblivion and never looked back.)

Parking czars like John Oglesby come and go. But the infernal boot, Denver's most notorious invention, remains eternal.

Still, for all my vast and intensely personal parking-ticket experience, I didn't know that ordinance 54-463 could apply to someone who'd used his for-sale vehicle to drive downtown and park at a meter. I had to hear Barnhart tell it to the judge -- or at least a parking-ticket referee.

Parking referees work outside the dreaded Division of Parking Management, as part of the Denver County Court. A very busy part. In early 2002, after Oglesby raised downtown parking-meter prices to a "world-class-city" level almost overnight and then threatened to do the same in other parts of town, the city's parking policies exploded into a full-blown scandal. Even before Oglesby left the city's employ, the parking division, which is located in the Department of Public Works, was prohibited from ripping up any more tickets, no matter how wrong a parking employee might have been to issue them, no matter if they happened to have been issued to Oglesby's car. And the Denver County Court, which had already been charged with handling any in-person citizen complaints over tickets, now assumed responsibility for all contested parking tickets.

The court's parking referees are currently located on the seventh floor of the Colorado State University Building, at 110 16th Street. When you enter, the court official directing traffic -- foot traffic, of course -- checks to make sure you're in the right place (if you just want to pay your ticket, you can go straight to the cashier) and gives you a number.

The man directing traffic last Wednesday looked familiar, and with good reason: He was the patient referee who had to listen to so many Westword stories two decades ago, back when the referee operated out of a tiny courtroom in the City & County Building and lower downtown had yet to be nicknamed LoDo...much less get a parking lot.

But for all the times we'd shared our tales of woe with the parking-ticket referee, we'd never had a story as good as Barnhart's. So when his number was up, I went with him to see the referee.

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