Editorial: Soul-searching through Aspen’s parking-meter fracas | AspenTimes.com

Editorial: Soul-searching through Aspen’s parking-meter fracas

The "Parking-Gate" issue — every government debacle deserves a catchy name — is troubling on many levels. With this week's news that the Aspen Police Department has agreed to investigate the matter, we feel the need to weigh in on the city's latest controversy.

To briefly recap the situation: Over the past few years, an undetermined number of crafty motorists figured out how to make an end run past the city's paid-parking system. They've been using maxed-out, prepaid credit cards to purchase parking time on downtown-area streets. City officials estimate that the scam has resulted in the loss of at least $600,000 over the past few years. They are looking to hold the perpetrators — particularly the worst offenders, if they can be identified — accountable.

First, it should be noted that the Police Department has acknowledged that the investigation will be difficult and "slow-moving." Many of the offenders likely purchased the cards with cash, making their identities largely untraceable. Therefore, the investigators assigned to the case are going to turn up a few names but not all of them. The process by its very nature will result in de facto selective enforcement, raising questions of fairness.

Second, it was only three years ago that the city acknowledged that its parking meters were collecting money after hours. The parking director knew about the problem in 2008 but (as he himself acknowledged) let it slip. The city said it could not estimate how much money was collected from the after-hours meter feeders. Thus, the city kept the money — we don't know how much — before the meter vendor corrected the problem through a software update. To us, this was a case of the city benefiting financially from a flaw (of which it was aware) in the parking-meter system. Aren't the scofflaws with the maxed-out credit cards doing the same thing now?

Third, the meters themselves were flawed by accepting the illegitimate credit cards. This gave the would-be parking outlaws an opportunity to commit such nefarious crimes. Had the system itself been designed properly, no problem would have occurred. While we aren't in favor of people committing crimes — the terms "credit-card fraud" and "felony" have been tossed about — the city should recognize its own role in allowing the problem to fester. Frankly, it amazes us that in this day and age of technological advancement, the flaws were not corrected when they were first recognized in 2007.

Last, we believe that the two separate incidents — the after-hours problem from which the city profited and the prepaid-card scam from which certain motorists benefited — point to a need for some sort of independent audit of Aspen's Parking Department and related programs. What would an outside consultant with knowledge of good-government practices say about our municipal parking system? Is it all that it can be? Is it doing one of the things it's designed to do, encouraging people to use alternative means of transportation? Does it reward scofflaws and penalize the hardworking locals who need a vehicle to perform their daily duties?

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Perhaps the city should look inward — instead of to Detectives Walter Chi and Ian MacAyeal — in trying to find a solution. Has someone been asleep at the wheel? Should someone be held accountable for these recurring parking-meter problems? Instead of striking a defensive tone and circling the wagons, as some elected and appointed leaders seem to be doing, wouldn't the community be better served by a more thorough approach? It bothers us that Mayor Steve Skadron reportedly was quick to agree with Councilman Dwayne Romero's sentiment that "the conduct of the citizens is far more malicious and dark than the management issues inside the city."

We're not suggesting maliciousness on the part of any city official, but we wonder if all the correct steps were taken to ensure that a city employee is not ultimately culpable in having allowed the problem to fester. What we will advise is that the city do a little soul-searching of its own in order to determine its own level of responsibility for the problem.

And in the big picture, perhaps a town-hall-style meeting among residents, parking-space users from outside the city, elected leaders and municipal employees to discuss the pros and cons of the paid-parking system is in order. New parking meters are on the way — will they bring their own set of problems? The nearly 20-year-old system appears to be more focused on generating revenue than serving the populace in a fair and efficient manner. After all, Aspen prides itself on its thoughtful evaluations and re-evaluations in which every card is laid out on the table, so to speak. The community should not make the paid-parking program the exception.