City towing license still not hooked up

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Chief Harper did not respond to numerous requests in the past two months for comment on why he thought the ordinance was unenforceable. Bureau of Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said Harper had a booked schedule for much of November, was on vacation in December and recently was off because his mother died. Doven said neither the mayor nor Public Safety Director Michael Huss would be available for comment.

Protecting “citizens from aggressive tow companies … is certainly important,” Doven wrote in an e-mail. “However, the ordinance was written by a politician without any input from the officials who would be responsible for implementing and enforcing the ordinance.”

Doven said she did not know which parts of the ordinance Harper thought were unenforceable. While she said a police representative would contact PublicSource, none had done so by deadline.

The mayor’s office voiced few public misgivings about the measure during council’s initial deliberations. At a March 2010 council meeting, Shields said he had sent the ordinance to the mayor’s policy director and had not heard back.

“I assume they are fine with it,” he said.

During an April council meeting the same year, Assistant City Solicitor Jason Zollett said the Law Department’s initial concerns about the bill had been assuaged because of amendments Shields was adopting.

“I’m perfectly content with the way it reads at this point,” Zollett said.

Resolving towing disputes, Shields said, was going to take “some focus on the part of the police department, and Chief Harper has assured me that that’s going to happen.”

And when Harper came to council’s table shortly afterward to answer questions, he raised no concerns about the bill.

At several other council meetings, the dates to implement the ordinance were changed to give the city more time, but Shields said the administration was committed to having the system in place by early 2011.

All the amendments were passed by council and signed by the mayor.

Doven told PublicSource that Ravenstahl signed the original measure because he supported the idea behind the legislation. Thinking it would be revised later, she wrote, Ravenstahl “followed the will of council.”

Doven said Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat who represents District 8, offered to rework the ordinance and that Harper had been awaiting his proposed revisions.

However, Peduto, who is challenging Ravenstahl in this year’s mayoral race, said the conversation ended when he asked Harper and Huss in March of 2012 for specific problems with the bill and was not given an answer.

“I’m not going to go through the foolish exercise of introducing and passing a bill and then see the administration not do it again,” he said.

Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the council’s Public Safety committee, did not return calls for comment.

Industry response

Nick Milanovich, manager at J.E. Stuckert Inc., says the Uptown-based towing company supported the business license.

“It would protect everybody,” he said. “And it would make sure that everyone is on the same page with insurance and liabilities.”

Joe Stickles, owner of Stickles Towing in Greenfield, said he supports a business license because it would help push out “fly-by-night” businesses that employ drivers without driver’s licenses or proper insurance.

Having the law on the books, but not enacted, has created confusion for the industry, both men said.

Stickles said several vehicle-owners have questioned his drivers about whether they have a business license.

“We have to explain to them … that it hasn’t been implemented,” Stickles said. “I tell them to call their local representative to ask about the situation.”

Had the law been implemented back when Elliot Gerard dashed into Starbucks for example, the tow-truck driver would have needed a request from the lot owner to remove the SUV. The Monroeville family also would have had a channel to complain about the towing company, and the city could review its practices.

Instead, the Gerards filed a police report, which they said went nowhere.

City officials “put this law on the backburner because it wasn’t important to them, but it was important to us and I’m sure it was important to a lot of others,” said Alicia Gerard.

Peduto said his office receives calls by residents outraged by how they’ve been treated by towing companies.

“There really isn’t a way to prevent it at this point,” he said. “The idea of the ordinance was to get to the root cause. Without it, there’s no mechanism in place to go after those operating illegally.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.

View this story on the PublicSource site here: http://publicsource.org/investigations/city-towing-license-still-not-hooked-up

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