CITY HALL — A Santa Monica couple suing City Hall for allegedly failing to properly notify people as to why their parking tickets were found to be valid is now saying that Tuesday’s announcement of a settlement agreement in the case was premature.
Stanley and Harriet Epstein filed suit against City Hall in June 2011 claiming that Santa Monica officials had violated the California Vehicle Code by sending motorists form letters that gave no justification to those contesting parking tickets.
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie outlined the supposed settlement agreement in the opening minutes of Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
It consisted of a single $77,500 payment to the Epsteins and their attorney, $12,500 of which would be paid by ACS, an independent contractor that processes parking tickets for City Hall.
The Epsteins would personally receive only the $12,500, a substantial amount of which will be donated to the Public Justice Foundation, a nonprofit consumer rights group, the couple said.
City Hall and ACS would also send out letters to people who had received a citation and requested an initial review by a hearing examiner and those that had accomplished that and then gone on to an administrative hearing.
There are approximately 9,500 people in the first class, according to the Epsteins. It is unclear how many people did not receive a report from their administrative hearing.
All of those people would get more information about why the ticket against them was upheld. Those wanting another chance to fight their ticket would be given that opportunity.
Finally, City Hall would agree to send out a joint press release about the lawsuit and the settlement with no admission of liability by officials.
Council members voted unanimously to approve the settlement.
This all came as a surprise to Stan Epstein, who was watching the City Council meeting at his home, not expecting to hear anything about his lawsuit in open session.
In his eyes, there were several substantive points that still needed to be worked out, and without those, there was no agreement.
According to Stan Epstein, the council was only to approve the agreement after all of the details were worked out. Then it would be off to a judge who would likely dismiss the case.
The class action component of the case would remain, which means anybody who received a citation between Jan. 1, 2009 and May 2011 can challenge City Hall over the matter.
Instead, the council was asked to vote on an incomplete agreement, forcing the supposed settlement into the public record before all matters had been resolved, the Epsteins said.
“In every lawyer’s experience, considerable number of deals fall apart at the last stages,” Epstein said. “There was no reason to bring it to council until we had a deal.”
The Epsteins also felt that the city attorney’s characterization of the settlement gave the false impression that they would receive the entirety of the $77,500 and a small percentage of that would be paid by them to their lawyers.
The City Attorney’s Office stated in an e-mail that it could not comment on the case.
“There now is no signed settlement agreement. The City Council approved the basic terms of a settlement with the Epsteins, but those terms must be reduced to writing for a settlement to be finalized. Until that occurs, I am unable to discuss the case,” wrote Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner in an e-mail.
This isn’t the first time that City Hall and the Epsteins have butted heads over the settlement agreement.
In February, talks broke down because city officials refused to publish the joint press release in Seascape, a City Hall publication that informs residents about city programs and services.
The Epsteins threatened to take City Hall to court, a process they estimated in February would cost taxpayers anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million, not including attorney fees.
The issue began in February 2011 when Harriet Epstein was issued a citation for parking at a local park and then leaving to run errands. Parking enforcement issued her the ticket because only park patrons can leave their cars at the park.
She was fined $64.
Laying aside questions of innocence or guilt, the ticket revealed what the Epsteins believed to be a violation of the California Motor Vehicle Code, which was amended in 2009 to require explanations on why citations were ruled valid.
“This has always been a public interest lawsuit,” Harriet Epstein said. “We wanted the people who had been treated badly by the city to get their day and their say in court.”