4

Boot Hill

The new year was barely a day old when a city truck appeared out of the pre-dawn murk on my northwest Denver street. Minutes later, it had left a calling card for one of my neighbors: a Denver boot, clamped to the left front wheel of the car.

It was not yet 7 a.m. on January 2, and the city's new revenue-enhancing plan was off to a fast start.

Another four weeks would pass before John Oglesby, the city's parking manager, would reveal his proposed overhaul of the city's parking-meter system, a scheme that included everything from jacking up rates to extending hours to tucking meters into every possible nook and cranny downtown. Another four weeks after that, the city would reveal its planned overhaul of Oglesby's responsibilities, removing ticket-fixing powers from parking management while an internal audit investigated Oglesby's own ticket fixes and outside work for a company that just happens to sell the sort of meter he'd recommended be installed in one part of town.

But decades before Oglesby made his globally nutty January 30 pronouncement that keeping meters active from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. "would better reflect the multi uses of Denver as a world-class city," this city's parking managers had already made their mark on the world.

They had given the world the boot.

Specifically, The Denver Boot•, "the wheel immobilization device that started it all," according to the Web site of Clancy Systems (clancy-systems.com), a Denver-based company that now owns the rights to our notorious namesake.

The boot was the brainchild of one Frank Marugg, a man of many talents who was a pattern maker, inventor, teacher and violinist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra fifty years ago. (He even made his own violin.) In the early '50s, some friends in the Denver Police Department -- which then had responsibility for issuing the town's parking tickets -- asked Marugg to apply some of those talents to coming up with a better way to handle parking scofflaws. Marugg started tinkering, and ultimately invented a clamp that could immobilize a car without harming it.

And the rest is history. Or hysteria, depending on when you happen to find your car wearing a Denver boot.

Clancy Systems hadn't even been born when I got my first boot, back in the days when Westword cars were often the only vehicles on the 1400 block of Market Street, a part of town that had yet to receive the highbrow designation of LoDo -- much less become ground zero in the Friday-night battle for parking places or the inspiration behind Oglesby's world-class 7-11 metering concept.

Liz and Stanley Wolfson helped found the company, which specializes in parking systems for cities, back in 1984; a year later, they contacted Marugg's daughter, Grace Berg, and asked about her father's boot. "He was a wonderful guy," Liz Wolfson says. "We approached Grace about selling it. We ended up in a licensing agreement with her, then wound up buying the rights."

Although by then the Denver boot had stomped its way across the country, there was still more territory to conquer. "He had really made a one-size-fits-all thing," Wolfson says of Marugg. "We modified it to fit 4 x 4 vehicles and others. It's interesting that it's had such a long life."

And one that's stretching far into the foreseeable future. Clancy Systems now manufactures about 700 boots a year, and demand keeps growing. "We used to sell them only to cities, because we were advertising in police journals and parking publications," Wolfson explains. "But since the Internet became a source for sourcing everything, we have probably increased our volume tenfold, and we're selling them to people who are booting construction trailers, monitoring private lots.... It's kind of like this thing's taken on a whole new life."

Among Clancy's many satisfied customers is Rita Bass, who bought several boots in order to punish cars parked illegally in her Cherry Creek lot -- a heated, private-property controversy of last fall that's been shoved in the deep-freeze by the current, very public parking scandal. "Rita Bass is absolutely right," says Wolfson. "We had a similar situation down on some property we owned at Seventh and Santa Fe." That would be the corner leased by El Taco de Mexico: When the lot was full and El Taco's seven stools were empty, Wolfson knew that illegal parkers were to blame.

"When I know people are renting their property to paying tenants, it's a real problem, because people don't respect the property owner," she says. The boot is an easy, equitable solution to protecting that property. "It's not as bad as towing," she points out. "That's almost like a blackmail situation."

Although many imitation car-clamping devices have emerged over the past five decades, there's only one official Denver boot. Even the wannabes often wind up tagged with this city's name. When London started booting cars over a decade ago, for instance, it was Denver that received the brunt of England's ire.

Today the boot is big in the Middle East, and here at home, even smaller municipalities are investing in it. "It used to be used by big cities, and now it's little cities," Wolfson says. "A lot of cities are very motivated to collect any money that's on the books. This is one way to do it."

And one of the very few ways left in which Denver can do it.

After businesses in neighborhoods across town complained that not only had Oglesby failed to consult them, but his plan would actually harm the businesses it was allegedly designed to help (a South Broadway restaurant isn't going to benefit when the meters around it suddenly limit parking to one hour), the city put the parking overhaul on hold until at least April. (A better bet might be never, judging by the tone of talks now being held around town.) A recent court ruling has tossed photo radar guns -- and the resulting tickets -- out the window. And that leaves the lowly boot.

From 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday, several parking-management trucks are on the prowl, with half a dozen city employees assigned to check the license plates of parked cars against a computerized list of scofflaws who have at least three unpaid parking tickets that are all over forty days old. (Deadbeats who've failed to pay child support were recently added to the list of the boot-eligible.) When they make a match, out comes a boot -- one of 278 currently in service -- along with a notice that's stuck on the front windshield, advising the car's owner that once the tickets and a boot fee are paid, the boot will be removed. Don't even think about trying to saw the thing off or stopping by the parking-management office for a free fix.

Instead, regulars to the booting routine (and about forty cars are booted a day) know to head over to the parking-ticket referee's office, where a Denver County Court employee listens to sad stories and occasionally buys them, sometimes knocking a few bucks off a ticket or dismissing it altogether. It's public, it's fair, and it's a system that soon will become familiar to anyone who wants to protest a parking ticket: Last Friday, Presiding Denver County Court Judge Ray Satter and Stephanie Foote, head of the Denver Public Works Administration (which oversees parking management and Oglesby), announced that as of March 11, all ticket disputes will go before a County Court parking magistrate. "We'll make sure people are treated fairly," Judge Satter says.

Back in 1986, the city transferred parking-violation enforcement duties from the DPD to Public Works, which created its parking-management division to handle the load. But the city set the course for its current mess when it also gave parking management responsibility for setting parking fines -- a job that was once handled by Denver City Council.

"We contend that world-class cities recognize and celebrate the diverseness of their community," a group of Broadway business owners wrote the city in protest of Oglesby's plan. "They are able to recognize that different areas have different needs and focus."

In other words, South Broadway is not LoDo -- not even the lower downtown of twenty years ago.

While the boot trucks continue their patrols, Public Works has clamped down on information coming out of that beleaguered department. This week, word came down that any questions should be sent in writing.

Give 'em the boot.

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