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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Transportation Board Indecision Aggravates Cops and Car-Owners

Dennis Fox

June 17 , 2004

Although I complain about Brookline's two-hour parking limit, it doesn't often rile me personally. Our family car mostly rests in its rented space day after day. To unload groceries or pack travel gear, sometimes we can find a spot out front, sometimes not. Without the limit, parking on our street might become even harder, but we'd still rent our space and survive, grumbling.

What does bother me is unfairness. It's unfair for the Transportation Board to retain an overly broad rule that police with inadequate guidelines enforce inconsistently and sometimes bizarrely. It's unfair to ignore hardships or to make believe existing policies suffice. And it's unfair for board members who now acknowledge those hardships to extend them, as they did last week when considering this topic for the fourth time in 14 months. There's no simple solution, but complexity calls for creativity and experimentation, not inaction.

Fortunately, some board members recognize flaws in our de facto system of unpublicized temporary permits and the selective enforcement created by informal unwritten understandings, shifting police and transportation policies, and personal whim. Board co-chairman Michael Sandman even proposed codifying a few informal rule exceptions, such as temporary permits for visiting contractors and home health aides. He also proposed "post[ing] a permit application form" on the Transportation Division website "and request[ing] that local media publicize the existence of the permit process and availability of the form."

Still, when Sandman mentioned that Assistant Director of Transportation David Friend began experimenting with temporary permits after earlier board discussion, Friend replied that they've been issuing permits for years. Sandman corrected himself. He also immediately accepted some of Friend's other criticisms. At this rate, the board may yet accept Friend's assurance that no change is needed at all.

Despite Friend's objections, routinizing the permit system as Sandman proposes would prevent many individual hardships. However, Sandman also wants to maintain the basic rule's unfair silliness. Residents still could not park on an always-empty residential street for more than two hours. Cops would still ticket in response to whatever pressures they decide are relevant.

It's time for broader change: former Selectman Marty Rosenthal's proposal to abolish the two-hour rule except in overcrowded neighborhoods that need it. Such a neighborhood-based approach, though cumbersome, would be better than today's secretive morass. I learned at the hearing, for example, that police "don't go looking for rule violators south of Route 9" in suburban Brookline and that, as board co-chairman Fred Levitan put it, despite resident complaints "it's not town policy to ticket teachers" parked near schools.

This ad hoc approach complicates life for Police Captain Michael Gropman, newly in charge of town traffic. During the meeting, while heatedly objecting two or three times to my last column, Gropman insisted somewhat improbably that police have no discretion and don't selectively enforce the rule. Instead, they simply respond to complaints, which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.

That's when things turned confusingly interesting. Under his watch, Gropman announced, police would enforce the rule uniformly. Levitan objected: Police shouldn't ticket in uncrowded neighborhoods. The captain responded: That's not acceptable. Transportation Manager Friend: The board does set policy by neighborhood. Sandman: Why would police ticket south of Route 9? Gropman: That's the law. Sandman: That shows we need to change it. Gropman: Yes. Board member Paul Mason: We need priorities, not discretion. Gropman: Yes.

In the end, Levitan said "uniform enforcement across town may help force the board to act" when it meets in September. When I asked how to reconcile the differing takes on discretion, selective enforcement, priorities, and complaints, Levitan's admission must have hurt: "It's not clear. I'm not sure we all understand it."

That's about when Gropman backtracked a bit: "We respond to complaints. We're not going out looking in areas with no problems." Uniform enforcement? Apparently not.

While talking with the police captain afterwards, I reiterated something Andrew Fischer and Marty Rosenthal noted at the meeting: Board inaction puts police in an impossible situation. Mixed messages complicate the Police Department's job, which always includes trying to keep town decision makers happy.

While waiting for the Transportation Board to decide what, if anything, to do, contact DPW if your babysitter needs a parking permit (617-730-2177). They say they're waiting for your call.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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