Unraveling Duluth’s “first ticket forgiveness” policy

John Ramos

On October 23, 2017, Mark Bauer, Duluth’s parking operations specialist, presented the parking division’s 2018 budget to the city council. He took the opportunity to highlight some of his office’s recent accomplishments: a new mobile payment system for parking that took effect this year, the installation of several electric vehicle charging stations in Canal Park, a new parking ramp rate allowing users who stay for less than an hour to park for free, and an effort to rebrand the parking division to make it more familiar to citizens. “We are trying to be very sensitive to how we’re perceived by the public,” said Bauer.

As part of that, Bauer noted that the city was going to be more lenient when it came to first-time parking offenders. “Basically, we were in the practice before of being somewhat lenient. If you got a [first] ticket [and] you contested the ticket, we were pretty reasonable about dismissing it. We’ve formalized that procedure, so basically if you get a ticket for alternate side parking, for example, and you’ve never gotten a ticket before, you’re probably going to get it dismissed if you mention it to us and discuss it.”

This was news to me. Whenever I visited the parking ticket office, the people on the other side of the glass had always seemed skeptical and unforgiving. Then again, I hadn’t contested my first ticket. I think it had been for an expired meter, and since I was guilty, I paid it. Could I have gotten out of it just by complaining?

I contacted the city clerk to get a copy of the slide show Bauer had given the city council. When I got it, I saw that the slide mentioning first ticket forgiveness was missing. I called Bauer to get more information. For readers who wonder what it’s like to be a journalist, here’s the conversation I had.

“What’s that first ticket forgiveness all about?” I asked Bauer.

“You know what?” said Bauer. “Let me jot down what your question is, and I can get back to you with an answer on that. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I believe you said something about, as part of your effort to be more community-oriented and community-friendly, people now, if they contest a first ticket, they’ll have a good chance of getting out of it, or having it dismissed.”

“Okay, and then...I’m sorry, what’s your question, John?”

“Well, first of all, is that an accurate portrayal of what you said?”

“Well, let me jot down your question and I will get back to you. Okay? Let me...so you’re wondering if…”

“Well, I just want more details on that bullet point of your presentation. You had said something about first offenses being dismissed if people contested them.”

“Okay. So you’re looking for more detail on the bullet point regarding first-time exceptions on parking tickets.”

“Yeah.”

I had thought I was asking for something simple, but it was turning into an ordeal. For a guy who had just given a presentation, Bauer didn’t seem to have a stellar grasp of his subject. 
The day went by. I heard nothing more from Bauer. The next day, I got a call from Pakou Ly, the city’s public information officer. Ly told me that Bauer had asked her to call me “to see if you had everything you needed.”
I didn’t understand why Bauer was including Pakou Ly in the conversation. He was the expert; he would know the answers to my questions, not Pakou. The way I read it, Bauer was using the thicket of bureaucracy to blow me off. 
With infinite patience, I went over the whole thing again with Pakou. She said she would return to Bauer with my questions and have him call me back.
Bauer never did call. But I did receive an email from him a while later that read as follows:

Generally, a parking ticket will be dismissed if there have been no previous ticket dismissals for the parker and the dispute is filed within ten days of issuance, assuming that is was not the result of a public complaint or a safety-related or major violation (parking in an ADA stall without valid credentials, etc.). This is a general procedure that is applied on a case-by-case basis. The dismissal is then coded as a “First Ticket” exception in the ticketing system. The purpose is to provide the best customer service that we can while still educating parkers on the public safety and access purposes of the tickets.

So there you have it: After a lot of unnecessary effort, Mark Bauer has confirmed that it is possible to get out of paying your first parking ticket, if you make a fuss. 

Spirit Mountain loses tourism tax, gets it back

Tourism taxes attached by the city of Duluth to restaurant meals and hotel stays in the city have grown almost uninterrupted for 30 years. In 2016, they totaled $11 million. During the first quarter of 2017, however, for the first time in recent memory, tourism tax collections dipped below projections. As a result, a number of entities that receive tourism tax support saw their portion reduced. Spirit Mountain, which had been slated to receive $200,000 in operational support, saw that amount reduced by 5 percent, to $190,000.

“We’re calling it a holdback [rather than a cut],” Chief Financial Officer Wayne Parson told me in July. “We’re hoping that we’ll pay it at the end of the year, but it all depends how we do this year with our collections.”
Spirit Mountain has now regained that money, and then some. On November 6, the city council approved a $50,000 tourism tax allocation to Spirit Mountain, which the ski hill will use to pay the fee to host Snocross, the national competitive snowmobile racing event that Spirit Mountain has hosted since 1992. 

“It is definitely a community-based and a city-based event,” Spirit Mountain Executive Director Brandy Ream told the council. “We see 15,000 people that are coming into the city for three days. They’re staying in our hotels, they’re eating in our restaurants. And this is a very expense-heavy event for us. We do not see a lot of net income for this, and this is why we are asking for the assistance.”

It is perhaps indicative of how accustomed the council has become to such requests that they approved the $50,000 without discussion.

Spirit board seeks city rep, state money

The Spirit Mountain board of directors, like a lot of boards in the city, is having trouble maintaining a healthy number of board members. With the recent departure of long-time member Todd Torvinen adding to the unfilled seats, the Spirit Mountain board has had to cancel some recent meetings due to lack of a quorum. At their November 16 meeting, Director Ream said that Mayor Emily Larson had tasked her with filling the board.

“She is asking us tonight to determine three to five skills that we want to see in new board members,” said Ream. “She has let me know that she does have a small stack of applicants at City Hall, but she wants to place those people in the right positions with what boards they desire....So if we could hammer out three to five of those key items that we’re looking for, then I could pass that along and we can continue to move forward with a little more urgency to have new board members in place by the end of the year.”

It soon became apparent that one key attribute that Spirit Mountain was looking for was that at least one new board member be a city employee. “One area that we have talked about...with City Hall is having a representative from the city placed on our board,” said Ream.
Board Chair Dave Kohlhaas thought that was a great idea. “I don’t know my way around City Hall. I know some people in City Hall, but I don’t really know my way around the process. I’ve always worked on the private side, never for a public entity….I see value in having someone that can help us navigate, educate us, lead us in that part of our responsibility. I think that’d be great.”

Spirit Mountain is a state authority, but the recreation area sits on city-owned land. The city has always been closely involved with Spirit Mountain, subsidizing the operation with tens of millions of dollars since it opened in 1973. Today, the city Planning department is the office tasked with Spirit Mountain-related business. Recently, city planners have been spending a lot of time working on Spirit Mountain’s master plan update. When that update is complete, a door will open to allow the city to apply for state Legacy grant money on behalf of Spirit Mountain.

The thinking, apparently, is that because the city is unable to keep Spirit Mountain afloat, it’s time to ask the state for help.