Parking policy earns slap

Last updated 09:00 05/04/2014

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The Palmerston North City Council has come in for criticism from the Chief Ombudsman for keeping the public "in the dark" about disputed parking tickets, after it refused to release legal advice about its unpopular $40 fine.

The council has been forced to release a summary of the legal opinion it received about the fines for failing to correctly activate the meter.

An Official Information Act request by the Manawatu Standard to see the legal advice in September, 2012, was refused by the council, prompting the newspaper to complain to the Office of the Ombudsman.

In a rare move, Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem will rule the information was covered by legal privilege, but because of the strong public interest, the city council should have released a summary.

Wakem said it was not appropriate for the council to keep the public "in the dark" about advice that it should use its discretion to waive tickets if people could show they paid for their parking, but paid for the wrong space.

The council has now released a summary, and a public notice telling people how to go about seeking to have a parking ticket waived.

The council kept on issuing the tickets for 17 months after learning it was unlikely convictions could follow if people could prove they paid for the wrong park.

After being advised there was no point in taking a prosecution, the council gathered a further $1.2 million in $40 fines from people who made errors as well as from meter cheats, until it got rid of the infringement in December, last year.

Parking system critic and former deputy mayor, John Hornblow, said the council's actions reflected badly on its credibility and integrity.

"I'm shocked and disappointed at such a blatant lack of transparency."

Hornblow said processing nearly 3000 complaints from people ticketed after making an honest mistake was a waste of time and resources.

"It also created 33,000 moments of angst and anger which lowers council's esteem in the eyes of those it has sworn to serve."

The legal advice summary showed a consistent opinion that the council could issue the tickets, but it should exercise discretion to waive infringements if people could show they made a mistake.

In May 2012, further advice was sought about what would happen if the council tried to prosecute someone who paid for the wrong park.

The legal opinion was that the person would be highly likely to be discharged without conviction, even if the court found they had breached the bylaw.

Mayor Jono Naylor said the council had acted properly, in that the $40 tickets were lawfully issued throughout.

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All the parking wardens could know when alerted to a possible parking infringement was that no money had been paid for a particular park, but there was a car in it.

They had no way of knowing whether someone had paid for another metered space by accident.

The council only became aware that honest mistakes as well as deliberate meter cheating was being picked up when people complained.

It had acted on legal advice since February 2012 to exercise its discretion to waive tickets if people provided evidence they had paid for parking, but for the wrong space.

Figures for the six months to October last year showed most people who challenged a $40 ticket had it waived.

Naylor said there was no way of knowing how much of the $1.2m collected in $40 fines over 17 months was paid by genuine meter cheats.

He was confident most of $40 tickets had been issued to people who had neither paid for parking nor made any attempt to pay.

The $40 offence has now been dropped, and people who do not pay for parking at all are treated the same as people who have overstayed their paid time and get the same $12 fine.

That still captures people who have accidentally keyed in the wrong bay number, and the public notice in today's Standard and on the council's website explains they have a right to ask for the $12 to be waived if they can produce evidence, preferably a receipt.

"What we can do is learn and ensure we have the best and fairest system going forward," Naylor said.

Former Maori warden Nola Te Papa, who took her protest against a fine for paying for the wrong bay to the Palmerston North courthouse, said the council should have stopped issuing $40 fines as soon as it knew they would not stand up in court. Te Papa never had to pay.

Another campaigner, former retailer Ralph Bare, said it was "disgraceful" the council had persevered with fining people, knowing many of them had simply made a mistake.

Hornblow said the council's public notice was largely meaningless, and did not help those who had paid their $40 without challenging it, not knowing the council had been advised to use its discretion to waive tickets when people produced receipts. "Without an accompanying apology, there is very little credibility in the action."

He said the parking issues had not been resolved, and thousands of people were still getting it wrong. Editorial, P9

- Manawatu Standard

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