Ronnie Polaneczky: 'Hardbacking' another Parking Authority ploy to shaft public

Lisa Buster, a PPA hardbacking victim, was able to prove that she received an unwarranted ticket. At right, the handheld computer truncheon used by the Parking Authority to spit out those citations.
Lisa Buster, a PPA hardbacking victim, was able to prove that she received an unwarranted ticket. At right, the handheld computer truncheon used by the Parking Authority to spit out those citations.
Posted: September 13, 2011

LISA BUSTER was surprised to get a letter from the Philadelphia Parking Authority socking her with a $20 penalty for not paying a $76 parking fine.

Buster says she never got a ticket in the first place.

Neither did Steve Ulrich, who admits idling in a handicapped spot while a friend bought a cup of coffee. He says a PPA enforcement agent gave him "a look," so Ulrich apologized and moved his car, pronto. Two weeks later, via mail, he learned he'd gotten a $300 violation, plus a late charge.

And don't get Rick Braun started about the PPA notices sent to Foods Galore, where he's chief financial officer. The company's drivers have gotten "50 to 100" tickets for violations they didn't know about, until the mail came.

Since I started writing about PPA headaches, many readers have shared similar tales of rogue tickets. So I asked my PPA Posse (three longtime PPA workers and one former one who have asked to remain anonymous):

How does a ticket go rogue?

Could be, the Posse says, that the wind blew it off the windshield. Or a prankster swiped it (this happens around high schools). Or someone snatched it for his own windshield, to confuse the PPA into avoiding his vehicle (common around universities).

Or perhaps, the Posse says, these drivers were "hardbacked" by the PPA ticket writer.

Hardbacked?

When a parking-enforcement officer logs an infraction into his handheld computer, the device generates a paper - or "hard" - copy of the violation, to be placed on the windshield. In some cases, the officer destroys the hard copy, leaving the car owner ignorant until a notice is mailed weeks later.

And that, my friends, is hardbacking. But why would the officer do such a thing?

It could be that he doesn't want a confrontation with a driver who looks like a troublemaker, the Posse tells me. Or a nasty citizen trash-talked him, so he hardbacked a ticket as passive-aggressive payback.

Oh, how nice.

Or he may have realized, after writing a ticket, that it wasn't legit (e.g., he misread a kiosk receipt) but didn't rescind it, since rescinding requires supervisor notification. So he hardbacked it to avoid a reprimand.

Or to beef up his ticket count.

One time, the Posse member says, an officer hadn't spotted a violation in three hours and was becoming frantic. So the officer decided to cite a car for being in a no-stopping zone - a $76 fine - even though the car was not in such a zone. The officer then hardbacked the bogus ticket, to keep the driver in the dark.

"I said, 'Don't do it. If you get caught you'll get fired,' " the Posse member recalls. But the officer was determined. "I said, 'That's a lot of money. Give them something smaller.' "

So, instead, the officer wrote a bogus $36 fine for a timed-out meter. In the hardbacking world, that passes for compassion.

None of this flies with Corrine O'Conner, PPA's director of on-street parking.

"There are no quotas for [parking-enforcement officers]," she says. "Officers are expected to record activity in their handheld devices to insure they are patrolling their beats consistent with their beat map instructions."

The recorded activity may include timing a vehicle, issuing a ticket or indicating that there is no activity on a block.

Officers "are instructed to place tickets on the vehicle," O'Conner says. "[If] a motorist drives away while the officer is in the process of issuing the ticket, he or she must turn the ticket in to his/her supervisor and it is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. Any officer who is found to have violated that procedure is subject to discipline."

That's why the Posse members themselves won't hardback a ticket. But they scoff at the notion that the PPA is quota-free.

"They never use the word 'quota,' but the supervisors tell you what your beat is 'expected to produce' " in numbers of violations, explains the former PPA worker. "It's the same thing."

Whether a hardbacked ticket is for a legitimate infraction or a trumped-up one, it's a hard ticket to fight. It's tough to recall where you parked two weeks ago, let alone prove you weren't at fault.

Ah, the evil genius of it all.

"We just pay the [rogue] tickets, because we can't take the time to fight them," says Foods Galore's Rick Braun, clearly aggravated.

Steve Ulrich asked for a hearing and won his $300-plus case before a sympathetic hearing officer who dismissed the rogue ticket with a warning.

Lisa Buster won her case, too, during a hearing in which she produced letters and a witness as proof that her rogue ticket was bogus. But that hasn't softened her on the PPA.

"This isn't the only phantom ticket I've gotten," she says.

"But it's the only one I knew I could prove was wrong. And I am 100 percent sure they fabricated it."


Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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