Sacramento has mistakenly issued nearly 4,000 parking meter tickets this year

The Sacramento city auditor is investigating the city’s parking meter program at the request of a councilman who said he’s alarmed by a spike in erroneous expired meter tickets this year.

“It is really a matter of trust,” Councilman Steve Hansen said. “If the city can’t enforce its parking regulations correctly, the public can’t trust us.”

The number of improper expired meter tickets issued by the city spiked this year to more than 3,900, nearly twice the number of dismissals over the first 10 months of last year, according to citation data. The issue was first highlighted in stories by the Sacramento Business Journal.

The dismissals amount to more than 5 percent of tickets issued this year at expired meters. Last year, 4.2 percent of tickets were dismissed and less than 3 percent were tossed out the year before.

City parking officials acknowledged last month they have begun proactively dismissing erroneous tickets after discovering problems with their ParkMobile app, a wireless payment device that allows motorists to pay via smartphone rather than put coins or a credit card in the meter.

Parking division head Matt Eierman referred to the problem as an anomaly that affected a small percentage of drivers who used the app for 16 days in October.

The data, however, suggests the problem is more widespread and has taken place over a longer period of time, Hansen said. Many of the erroneous tickets were issued in the early months of the year, long before the October glitch.

“It is potentially thousands of wrongly issued tickets over a couple of months,” Hansen said. “That’s a staggering number.”

Hansen said he wants the city’s independent auditor to determine whether there are systemic issues and how they should be addressed.

City Auditor Jorge Oseguera said his office has started its investigation and will “assess the magnitude of what may have gone wrong and how long it’s been going on.” He said he does not expect his investigation to be completed by the end of the year.

James May, a Southside Park resident who works downtown, said he and his wife have gotten three erroneous tickets in the last year, most recently in July when he still had four minutes on the meter. They challenged all three and got the city to dismiss them, but are left wondering what is going on.

“There seems to be a glut. We are wondering how many people … ended up paying these things” instead of challenging, he said. “I cant imagine the business community is thrilled with that. The idea is to bring people into downtown, but if they are getting illegal parking tickets, then it’s ultimately going to be self-defeating” for the city.

City Manager Howard Chan said the spike in dismissals this year is partly due to a city policy in place in the months after Golden 1 Center opened last year to be lenient with parking meter tickets.

“We wanted people to come downtown and not have a bad experience because everyone was saying this is going to be the worst thing ever, parking is going to be terrible, it’s going to be ‘Carmageddon,’ there are going to be citations everywhere,” Chan said. “We certainly didn’t want that.”

Still, the city is issuing far more citations this year than it has in the past few years. Through the end of October, parking officers wrote 71,316 tickets at expired meters in the city, according to numbers provided by the city. That places the city on pace to write 32 percent more expired meter citations in 2017 than it did in 2016, data shows.

The city operates 5,800 meters in the central city and downtown core. Almost all are “smart meters,” installed over the last few years, that take credit cards, work with the ParkMobile app and are able to send a signal alerting city officials if they are malfunctioning.

In a memo to the City Council this week, Chan defended the city’s new parking meter system, saying there have been glitches, but “we do not believe that this is a widespread issue.”

“The infusion of technology in any application comes with a potential for errors to occur,” Chan wrote. “In this instance, we’ve experienced an error rate of less than 1 percent.”

He cited data from 2015 to the present showing 14.1 million payments at street meters. The city issued 210,758 meter-related citations since 2015, Chan wrote, and, of those, 8,873 were dismissed. Some were for expired meters, some for other violations.

Chan said the 2017 increase in citation numbers is due, in good part, to the fact that the city increased its parking meter hours one year ago. Previously, almost all meters shut down daily at 6 p.m. Now, many in the downtown core must be fed until 10 p.m., and others in a slice of midtown must be fed until 8 p.m.

Chan said city parking officials have added secondary checks into their system “to ensure that citations are no longer being issued in error.”

He said the city plans to buy hand-held citation devices for code enforcement officers on the street that will give them “real-time data” aimed at showing whether a motorist has paid, even if the meter light is red.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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