DOWNTOWN — Barry Silver purchased his Toyota Prius in November 2005 because he wanted to reduce his impact on the environment. An added bonus was that he could park for free at meters in Santa Monica thanks to a law passed by the City Council to entice people to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles.
But when the Department of Motor Vehicles on July 1, 2011 phased out the yellow clean-air-vehicle stickers for hybrids that allowed Prius owners like Silver to drive in the car pool lane alone, that parking privilege also ended. The way the local law is written ties the privilege to whichever decals are still active and not to the make or model of the vehicle.
The problem is, Silver, 70, claims he didn’t know that.
So when he went to the Co-Opportunity Market on Broadway in August of last year, the Culver City resident returned to his car to find a parking ticket for $54. Upset, Silver decided to fight it.
In February, a Santa Monica Superior Court judge ruled in his favor, and with the ruling called into question the wording of City Hall’s law setting up the free parking privilege.
Now Silver wants City Hall to not only re-write the law to make it clearer just who is eligible to park for free, but he also wants refunds issued to all those who received parking tickets for an expired meter if they were driving a car with the yellow clean-air-vehicle sticker attached at the time the citation was issued.
“I never knew the ordinance was tied to the decals,” said Silver, who sells non-fiction books to retailers. “All I knew was that it was tied to the type of car, which was wrong, but that’s what I knew.”
City officials are standing fast, saying the ordinance as written is clear enough to understand and that Silver should have been more diligent about knowing the rules, especially since he and other drivers with the old yellow stickers received form letters from the DMV informing them that they could no longer drive in a carpool lane alone, and therefore were not eligible for the parking privilege.
City officials also said they worked hard to inform drivers with the yellow decals that their parking privilege was coming to an end, going so far as to take out ads in local newspapers, post a notice on City Hall’s website and have parking enforcement place flyers on cars with the decals.
“The city did extensive outreach probably two months immediately before and after the end of the program,” said Don Patterson with City Hall’s Finance Department.
The problem is that City Hall’s ordinance and the language in the letter from the DMV don’t mesh, at least according to Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Lawrence Cho.
Cho did not respond to requests for comment.
In his ruling, Cho pointed to the local law which includes the modifiers “valid and current” in front of “decal.” Silver argued that the letter from the DMV never mentioned that the yellow sticker he had was no longer valid or current. It simply said his ability to drive in the carpool lane alone was revoked.
When the judge asked City Hall’s hearing officer if there was any expiration date on the decals issued by the DMV, the hearing officer said they were issued without one, Silver said.
“Part of the theory of a law is that it’s not something surreptitious,” Silver said. “It should be clear. Otherwise, how can anyone follow it?”
Silver said that as a Culver City resident he did not see City Hall’s notices printed in local newspapers and did not check the website. He believes he is not alone.
City officials feel the law is clear and will continue to issue tickets to those with yellow decals if they fail to feed the meter.
“A judge can make a decision, but with us, this is our enforcement policy,” said Lt. Jay Trisler, who oversees traffic enforcement for the Santa Monica Police Department.
Perhaps it was just a case of a sympathetic judge. Silver admits he was lucky.
“I think the judge is a part of the establishment and the establishment tends to prefer to defend itself and various elements,” Silver said. “I’m delighted by how he ruled. I didn’t think I had much of a chance going in.”