City swamped by parking tickets as meter rules change

BRIDGEPORT — Gentler parking meter policies — free Saturdays; longer grace periods before being ticketed; reduced fines – are finally being phased in these next few days. And just in time. The man who presides over parking violation hearings is overwhelmed by the increased activity from the new meters.

Michael Moretti, the elected sheriff appointed by Mayor Joseph Ganim as a hearing officer, denied he quit.

“I haven’t decided that yet,” Moretti said.

He does want help.

Moretti said he used to handle around 20 appeals per month, taking around four hours total to listen to city representatives and drivers present their cases, then render decisions.

“I can do that, no problem,” he said.

But now, several months after the city launched the automated, camera-equipped parking meters downtown, “There’s over 250 appeals (pending),” Moretti said. He would like Ganim to appoint a couple more hearing officers to divvy up the load.

“I’m doing the best I could for them on a voluntary basis,” Moretti said.

The meters replaced the aged, coins-only ones and also accept credit cards and payments by mobile phone. They also use cameras to nab drivers who do not pay for extra time, or at all. Critics have complained the system is too aggressive, the meters not infallible, the $40 tickets too pricey and that the city did a poor job educating the public about the new technology.

It is possible some drivers were encouraged to file appeals after the publicity garnered by community activist Carmen Lopez. The retired Superior Court judge successfully fought her own ticket in late April. She aggressively attacked the meters and the appeals process and even challenged Moretti’s authority, claiming he was never properly appointed.

Ultimately Moretti, who kept his cool in the face of Lopez’s questioning, waived her fine on the grounds the meters were not properly publicized.

Sources had said that there have been no hearings since early June because Moretti no longer wanted to participate.

Moretti said that is not true. He said it takes a long time for parking enforcement staff to prepare the appeals to be heard.

“We’re just backed up,” Moretti said.

Edward Adams, the aide that Mayor Joseph Ganim assigned to oversee the meters, in an email said ticket hearings will resume in August. And, Adams wrote, “We will try to appoint additional hearing officers.”

The number of tickets might go down now that less-strict meter rules, passed by the City Council last week and given final approval by the police commission Thursday, are going into effect this weekend.

They were initially announced by the Ganim administration and Adams in late March.

Specifically there will be free parking downtown on Saturdays. Then, beginning Monday, drivers who pull up to a meter or whose time runs out will get ten minutes’ grace period, rather than the current five, to pay before being in violation.

And the fines have been halved from $40 to $20. Additionally a few weeks ago the maximum parking time at the meters was changed from two hours to four hours.

Members of the City Council this week tabled a proposed year-long moratorium on the meters in favor of renegotiating the contracts with the companies the council hired a year ago to implement the new meters: Private parking manager LAZ of Hartford and Minnesota-based meter provider Municipal Parking Services.

The Ganim administration estimated turning the meters off entirely would cost $457,000 annually in revenues.

Some council members have suggested at least disabling the cameras and returning to human parking ticket enforcement.
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