DOWNTOWN — A lawsuit claiming that City Hall failed to properly notify people as to why their parking tickets were found to be valid will most likely head to court after settlement negotiations broke down last week.
Residents Harriet and Stanley Epstein filed suit against City Hall in June of 2011 claiming that Santa Monica officials violated the California Vehicle Code by sending motorists form letters that essentially consisted of one sentence, providing no substantive answers to arguments made by those fighting a parking ticket.
Now instead of settling the case, the Epsteins want to take it to court, and in turn force City Hall to give refunds to all those who were not properly notified, something which the Epsteins believe will cost taxpayers anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million, not including attorney fees.
They estimate that more than 10,000 motorists were not properly notified.
As of January 2009, under the California Vehicle Code, city officials and hearing examiners hired to deal with those fighting a ticket are required to provide a written explanation for the validity of the citation.
A settlement was “90 percent” complete when city officials refused to publish a joint press release in Seascape, a City Hall publication that informs residents about city programs and services, the Epsteins said.
City officials would not comment on the settlement negotiations. It is policy to not comment on active litigation, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said.
When the Seascape idea was shot down, the couple asked City Hall to instead take out advertisements in local newspapers or send out a citywide mailing. The Epsteins said city officials refused.
“There’s no reason why the city can’t [publish a notice of the settlement in Seascape],” said Harriet Epstein, who was issued a citation in February 2011 for parking at a local park and then leaving to run errands. Parking is for park patrons only and she was fined $64.
“If they want to notify the residents without any additional costs, [Seascape] is an excellent vehicle,” she said. “We want the widest amount of people to be notified and they want the smallest amount. They are protecting staff’s misdeeds at the expense of the public knowing.”
Stanley Epstein, an active class action lawyer, said that his wife’s guilt is not the issue. Rather it is exposing City Hall’s alleged failure to abide by state law.
“It’s a matter of principle,” he said. “We tried to settle it in a manner that’s reasonable.”
As part of the settlement negotiations, the Epsteins asked City Hall and ACS, its independent contractor that processes parking tickets, to provide those issued tickets from Jan. 1 2009 through May 2011, and had them upheld, a notice and an opportunity to seek further explanation of their initial review or hearing results.
These individuals would have also been able to request an administrative hearing or appeal to the court, the Epsteins said. If the citation was canceled, City Hall would have been required to refund any parking fine previously paid.
In a statement released in May of 2011, city officials said they were abiding by the law, but would begin including additional details in the letters sent to motorists as a means to improve customer service. The move was part of a year-long review of how parking permits and citations are issued.
“They get a second letter that has an entire paragraph by the citation hearing officer that has very specific information regarding their particular case,” said Don Patterson with City Hall’s Finance Department.
For example, the new letters may state that a hearing officer went to the location where the parking ticket was issued, say for street cleaning or parking in a residential area without a permit, and confirmed that signs notifying motorists about parking restrictions were properly posted.
The Epsteins have asked city officials to turn over to their attorney documents pertaining to the handling of parking tickets. A future court date has not yet been set.