Kevin James returns to parking ticket controversy in mayor's race
Los Angeles is in dire financial straits. Its traffic woes are mounting. Joblessness is high. But at Monday night’s mayoral debate, the five top candidates were repeatedly drawn into a discussion about a less weighty, but more perhaps more rage-inducing, issue for Angelenos: parking tickets.
It was the issue du jour for Republican Kevin James, an attorney and former radio talk show host who lacks the resources of his top three opponents — City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, and City Controller Wendy Greuel — but has sought to attract attention by portraying the trio as part of a “corrupt” City Hall culture.
At a feisty forum sponsored by the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., James managed to engage his opponents over a two-year-old controversy concerning the so-called Gold Card Desk — a defunct service within the city’s transportation department that allowed the mayor and elected officials to expedite the review of parking citations for constituents.
It was Greuel, James’ chief target, who conducted the May 2011 audit publicizing the existence of the Gold Card program, which was subsequently disbanded.
When moderator Dave Bryan of CBS2/KCAL9 asked the candidates which programs or services they would cut to head off the “financial tsunami” facing the city, the other candidates cited pension reform. James pointed at the Gold Card program. “This was a ticket-fixing scam that existed in this city government so they could benefit their friends, families, their donors, their relatives,” said James, without citing specific examples involving the other candidates.
He criticized Greuel for examining the Gold Desk’s activities for just two years, rather than the full period she served on the City Council, beginning in 2002. “What I want to know is just how many of those 1,000 tickets that that audit found were something where the books had been cooked.”
Under the program that began in the 1990s and ended in 2011, elected officials' offices were given a plastic “Gold Card” that included a special telephone number to assist callers with “any parking citation matter which requires special attention.” During a series of audits of the city’s ticket processing programs, Greuel said her staff found about 1,000 citations that were dismissed through the Gold Desk program without sufficient explanation, and she argued there was potential for misuse.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ended the program the day after Greuel released her audit — but his office pointed out that, as a councilwoman, Greuel approved the contract that included the Gold Card program and that staff members in her office had used the service.
On Monday night, James pounded those points during the forum at Autry National Center — drawing other candidates into the discussion, and producing occasional sighs and laughter from the audience as he repeatedly returned to the subject. He noted that the city’s parking ticket processing contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, contributed a total of $1,500 to a past Greuel campaign and to her officeholder account. (Between 2007 and 2009, the company also gave to five other City Council members, one of whom was running for city attorney). And he noted that a former press deputy to Greuel had used the Gold Desk service to complain about a citation issued to his mother.
Greuel, who was sitting to James’ right, defended her audit, noting that when the transportation department was slow to produce documents related to the Gold Card service, she issued a subpoena for them. She repeated one of her standard campaign trail lines: “You know as city controller sometimes you don’t make friends when you do that,” she said. “But I will continue to be that transparent, accountable city controller, as I will as mayor of Los Angeles.”
Garcetti defended the original intent of the program, which was to help constituents who were unable to resolve their parking ticket grievances through the adjudication process. “When my constituents called, you bet yourself, I used whatever we could — even picking up the phone and talking to the general manager sometimes about tickets — because that’s what I was elected to do,” he said. “When government doesn’t have a human face, and doesn’t do the right thing, I’m going to use every avenue to make sure that people feel like its re-humanized again.”
Perry said she had always directed her staff and constituents to follow the process on the back of their parking ticket. “There’s no need to have this sort of special treatment,” Perry said. “The only time we needed special treatment was over Jewish holidays or if there was a massive funeral in the community. Other than that I never saw the need for it.”
James brought up the subject no less than four times — making it one of the final points of the night when he tried to pin down Greuel on how many times her City Council office had used the Gold Card desk between 2002 and 2009. Greuel said she did not know about the existence of the Gold Card desk until her audit as controller. “I highlighted it, I exposed it, I spread it to the world,” she said, adding that she had questioned her staff about whether they had used the program appropriately. “That’s what you do as a leader.”
When Bryan, the moderator, cut her off and pressed her to answer James’ question about her staff, Greuel said she did not know of any questionable instances other than the call that her press deputy had made. For James, Monday night’s Gold Card debate was just Round 1. He plans to hold a news conference Tuesday on the issue.
-- Maeve Reston
Photo: L.A. mayoral candidate Kevin James responds to questions from the audience during an education policy discussion at an annual Super Bowl party at Dr. Gary Gitnick's home in Encino. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times