Although Denver's Parking Management Division has been getting a lot of negative press lately, the city's three parking referees really have it rough. While the referees have nothing to do with issuing tickets, they're the ones who have to deal with the angry masses on a daily basis. In fact, so many people are complaining about parking tickets -- a result, perhaps, of the parking division's stepped-up patrols -- that a fourth referee will be added soon.
One hot afternoon last week, the three referees -- employees of Denver County Court, rather than the parking division -- enjoyed hardly a moment's rest between tales of ill-gotten tickets. Some people offered true sob stories -- such as the single mom who cried at the prospect of having to scrape together $60 by the end of the day, and the man whose car had been ticketed after it was stolen -- but others presented only poor excuses, guilty looks...and occasionally a little skin.
Because of the recent heat, some folks have been showing up at the referees' current digs on the seventh floor of the Petroleum Building (110 16th Street) in short shorts and halter tops; the unarmed security guards have had to send a few people home to change into more appropriate attire. Usually, though, the guards' primary function is to guide traffic to room 765.
Here people take a number and wait until they're summoned to appear in a smaller, more private room before either Orlando, Charlotte or Roberta (they go by first names only for security reasons). The three referees have already heard dozens of cases by 1 p.m., when one of the guards, a slender young woman with a drill sergeant's voice, yells out, "Number 94!"
Number 94 is an able-bodied young woman who claims she was out of town when her car received a ticket for being parked in a handicapped space at a King Soopers. Charlotte asks her if someone else used her car while she was gone, but she says she doesn't think so. So how did her car get ticketed? C'mon, girl, show some creativity: Maybe the parking officer wrote down the wrong license-plate number for another car that happened to be of the identical make and model. Perhaps an elderly person in need of groceries stole the car, drove to King Soopers and then returned the car later.
But the young woman can't come up with an excuse -- any excuse -- to explain her misfortune, nor can she bring herself to look Charlotte in the eye. Despite this, the soft-spoken, empathetic referee remains open to the possibility that a relative or friend with access to 94's spare keys borrowed the car while she was out of town. Instead of accepting the fine reduction that Charlotte offers, however, the woman chooses to go to court for a final hearing. Good luck.
Number 99, whose car was ticketed for not having a front license plate, has given her story much more thought. "I just got my car back from being repaired, and the dealership threw [the license plate] in the trunk," she tells Charlotte. "They took it off the bumper and had nowhere to put it."
Charlotte asks 99 if there had been a license-plate holder on her car prior to the accident; she says there was. "When you did the estimate, did you tell them you needed a plate holder?" the ref asks.
"Yes, we talked about that," she answers. This girl's quick.
Charlotte agrees to reduce her ticket, and the woman gladly accepts. Charlotte also advises the woman to try to get the dealer to reimburse her for the fine. As she leaves, the woman says, "I'll bet you hear some pretty interesting stories." Yes, and this was one of them.
After hearing a few more, Charlotte leaves for her lunch break, and Roberta takes over. She's been hearing parking-ticket cases for five years and loves the job. By now the counter has rolled past 100, and Number 5 is before her. The young man hands her a big red ticket, "the worst of them all," Roberta notes. He has gotten the Denver boot.
Number 5 is one of many people who've been booted today. The diabolical booting device, invented fifty years ago in Denver and subsequently exported around the world, is clamped onto the tire of a car that has a certain number of unpaid parking tickets (usually at least two of a certain age), rendering the vehicle immobile. The boot isn't removed until the fine is paid. This man owes $240.
The people appearing before Roberta are all respectful. Most of them know they're culpable and are simply hoping for a reduction in their fines; in most cases, a reduction is granted. According to Roberta, the worst stories come from people who park illegally during emergency situations. "They tell me details of how they had to go to the bathroom, and I just don't want to hear that," she says.
Late in the afternoon, Orlando takes over while Charlotte and Roberta handle other administrative duties. When Number 34 walks into the room, there is no hint of the mini-drama that's about to unfold. The well-dressed woman is young, poised and well-spoken. She was ticketed for parking longer than allowed in a two-hour zone. She had been visiting a friend, she explains, and didn't see any signs; she's even brought photographs, one of which was taken from inside her car. Much of the street is visible through her windshield and, sure enough, there's not a sign in sight.
Orlando, the most no-nonsense of the three referees, explains that it's always a good idea to drive around the block before parking, because sometimes there are signs at the end of the street. He says he can knock a few bucks off of her ticket if that will help.
"The point of my coming here, which frankly is a waste of my time, is so that you'll put up a sign so this doesn't happen again to someone else," she says sharply.
"It's a person's responsibility to look at all signs on a block," he tells her calmly, before explaining that she has the right to try to get her ticket dismissed in court.
"No, I'm not going to do that," she snaps.
He explains again that all he can do is reduce her $20 ticket.
Stop while you're ahead, girlfriend.
"You don't deserve my money because of this," she says. "You are stealing my money."
"I'm not stealing anything from you," Orlando tells her in a steady, even voice. He repeats that she can set a final hearing before a county judge if she wants one.
"I don't have time for that," she hisses.
Stop! Stop while you still can!
"I can reduce it to $15," Orlando says.
"That's ridiculous," she says, pulling out her photos again.
Orlando glances at the photos and reiterates the advice he offered earlier about driving around to make sure there are no parking rules posted elsewhere on the street.
"No one's going to drive around the block looking for signs," she says.
"I would respectfully suggest you stop talking until I'm finished," Orlando says, as he starts typing into his computer.
He gives the ticket back to her, along with a note to reduce it by $5. "I would appreciate a lower reduction," she says.
"That's what I'm offering," he replies. "Or I can offer no reduction."
She doesn't seem to hear that last part. "I think I should only have to pay half," she snaps.
Orlando gently asks for the ticket back, and again starts typing.
"I've rescinded the reduction," he says, handing the ticket back to 34. "Now it's back to $20."
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Speechless for the first time, the woman lets out a small gasp of indignation, then marches out the door.
All told, the parking referees hear from over a hundred people this day -- several of them bitter, most of them nice. Number 34 earns honors as Rudest -- and Stupidest -- Person of the Day.
But in this time of stock-market dives and layoffs, it's people like 34 who ensure that Denver's parking referees have the most job security in town.