Why are we answerable to government agencies, but they don’t seem answerable to us?

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

The letter from the Los Angeles County parking division caused that little flutter of anxiety that any official notice from a government policing agency will do, even when it’s the IRS saying, “You did your taxes wrong, we owe you $110! Here’s the check!” (Yes, that really happened to me.) We’d like to know, the parking folks said, why you didn’t pay this ticket, and by the way you owe us more than $60.

I flushed as though I had been caught shoplifting a puppy, even as I wondered, what ticket? Could I have not noticed a ticket on my windshield? I was pretty sure I’d paid the parking-meter ticket from Little Tokyo – hadn’t I? Besides, that would be the city of L.A., not the county.

Finally, I settled down to see the what and where of things. The license plate number was definitely mine. So was the car’s make – Kia. The color was wrong – it said blue, not my car’s pale silver. But then, sometimes silver can look kind of bluish. My car’s a four-door, unlike the two-door marked on the ticket.

And then – the address where this parking offense had taken place. It was completely unfamiliar to me. I looked it up online, and it was in a neighborhood where I have never been. Never. Could my daughter have borrowed the car? No, she was off at college on that date. Could the address be wrong? My calendar showed I’d been nowhere near L.A. then, either.

And even then, I doubted myself – or just didn’t want to get into some kind of investigative thing with a government agency. I thought of just paying the ticket to avoid trouble. After all, that was my license and my make of car. They might get the first wrong, but it would be too coincidental to get both. How could I prove them wrong, anyhow?

In retrospect, the note I wrote was embarrassingly ingratiating. That’s my car, I said, except mine is silver and four-door, but I honestly don’t remember being there.

A few weeks later, the parking office sent back the original ticket, which I’d never seen before, with instructions for me to send a copy of my registration. But wait: The ticket said it was a Ford, not a Kia. A blue two-door Ford. How could they have written Kia on the original letter? Did a lazy clerk in the office look up my license plate with DMV and figure if there was a discrepancy, it had to mean I was guilty anyway?

I sent a copy of the registration – and a photo of a clearly pale silver Kia, showing the license. I was considerably less fawning this time. Please explain to me how this mistake was made, I said. Several weeks later, all I got was a formal determination that my registration showed I was off the hook.

My letters are getting more peeved each time. I’m not inclined to just back off. How many people get ripped off this way? People who might not be in the country legally and who panic at the thought of drawing government attention to themselves. People who don’t understand the system, or don’t speak the language.

Maybe this was a one-time gaffe, but I doubt it. At minimum, they should be getting to the bottom of what could be a systemic problem. Why are we entirely answerable to our bureaucracies, but they don’t seem to feel answerable to us? Why are we held accountable when we’re wrong, but they’re not?

I’ll let you know what they say.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.