Tough Ethics Lesson in Oakland: Appearances Count

In Oakland California we have a prime example of why it’s not enough for public officials to avoid actual unethical conduct, and why they have to avoid the appearance of impropriety as well.

Last  summer, Oakland, California decided to address its increasing budgetary problems with a more aggressive parking ticket policy and extended parking meter hours. The City Council rescinded the meter-hour extension after protests from business owners and shop patrons, but the mercilessly enforced parking tickets continued.
Some narrow streets, however, posed special problems. Residents had parked the wrong way or on the sidewalk for years, because it was difficult and even dangerous to try to turn their cars around. If they didn’t park up on the sidewalk, emergency vehicles couldn’t pass. It didn’t seem fair to ticket the cars in these neighborhoods, so with the urging of the City Council, the police began instituting a policy of issuing courtesy warnings instead of tickets on those especially narrow streets.

Seems reasonable, don’t you think? Except that neighborhoods getting the bulk of the ticket breaks happened to be in wealthy, white areas. This is how the U.P.I. framed the resulting controversy:

OAKLAND, Calif., Feb. 25 (UPI)Parking enforcement officers in Oakland, Calif., were told to go easy on violators in rich areas and keep issuing tickets in poor areas, documents indicate.
Citing a city memo it obtained and interviews with parking officers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday the orders came down in July. Shirnell Smith, 44 — who has worked as a parking officer for 22 years — told the newspaper the policy has led to a disproportionate number of tickets being issued to poor, black and Latino people.

“It’s not fair,” Smith said.

The Oakland city government is now tearing out its metaphorical hair. Officer Smith is active in the unit of the Service Employees International Union that represents city workers, and suspicion is rife that the union is using the parking issue as a bargaining tactic. City Administrator Dan Lindheim and Parking Director Noel Pinto swear that the facts of the parking policy have been distorted to suggest discrimination where none exists. They say the city’s policy on wrong-way parking and parking on the sidewalk is the same across the city. “If it’s a wide street [defined as a street with a median or a stripe down the middle], we ticket,” he said. “If it’s not a wide street, we don’t ticket.”

Right.  But if all or most of the streets where there is no ticketing just happen to be in rich, white neighborhoods, can you blame people for being upset? It looks like discrimination. It looks terrible. The policy creates distrust of the government and its commitment to justice and fairness.

The situation was a tricky one, but a little anticipation and full, candid, advance disclosure would have gone a long way to avoid the current battle…either that, or the city should have just drawn lines down the middle of every street. In any decision involving ethical trade-offs, it is disastrous to stop at deciding whether a particular action is ethical, and not examine whether it will also appear ethical.

Officials in Oakland are learning this ethics lesson the hard way.

5 thoughts on “Tough Ethics Lesson in Oakland: Appearances Count

  1. It’s rough when you have separation of duties and multiple departments to present one face and have that face appear ethical and fair.

    How narrow are these streets exactly? Narrow enough that they should be one-way with a parking lane on one side? two-way with parking on one side? one-way with parking on two sides?

    Problem #1 in this situation is that they did the job halfway. They realized the rules didn’t quite fit the situation, but instead of defining the rules that would indicate fairness, they turned a blind eye. In a perfect world, the city planners (or appropriate job) would have altered traffic flows to remove a lane of parking or a lane of driving so that the enforcement division could get the cars off of the sidewalks….which I think are walkways along the sides of streets.

    Problem #2 But you might be saying to me some things like 1. Everybody does it, or 2. It works out for everyone. But I know those are simply rationalizations and the enforcement division should have followed the legal rules and let the system work itself out. The resident’s inability to drive around the block and come into their neighborhood from a direction that does not require “turning around” is no defense. Let’s call it what it is….convenient. They found a spot to park going the other direction and they dive into the spots to make sure that they get them.

    If enforcement recognized the problem, then it was their duty to alert the city planners of the problems and that they were about to be flooded with numerous angry citizens.

    I’m curious if our SC Sheriff is reading and what he has to say.

  2. For years as a single woman I lived in an upscale co-op, dating from 1911, which my family inherited. It was in a “changing neighborhood,” which varied from block to block from elite homes/co-op buildings to those which would have benefited from a couple of mortars thrown in to level them. Farther up my street was a firehouse, so we could park on only one side of the street (it was an old enough neighborhood that garages were unimaginable, though a few lucky folks had inherited parking in the alleys behind); it was frustrating, and we often parked several blocks away, or in a nearby grocery store parking lot to find a place for our cars for the night. NO ONE parked on the sidewalks… and no city authority would have allowed it. We chose to live in a beautiful co-op with 11 foot ceilings, hardwood floors, pocket doors, etc, and paid the price partially through the parking hassle.

    Oakland’s “look the other way” problem is self-inflicted, and they deserve what they get. If they can “prove” that their decision-making did not consider such things as the property tax base in areas where they didn’t ticket (I doubt it was race), then they need to hire a PR person to actually photograph the differences in the streets involved…teeny streets in the affluent areas, wider streets in the less affluent areas, and so forth, to “prove” the efficacy of their choices. If they can’t, they just have to take the heat.

    City dwellers of all kinds have had to deal with parking problems from time immemorial (or since chariot and carriage parking became a problem). This is the first I’ve heard that a city would allow residents to park any way they wish because their “streets are narrow.” Totally absurd. And if there’s a discrepancy in residential areas, they deserve whatever fallout they get. Appearance of impropriety indeed.

  3. Did you ever consider that white people might be more likely to own cars? They also might generally have higher incomes and be more able to pay the fines. Think about it this way: If the bulk of police shootings are perpetrated against black people and the bulk of parking tickets are issued to white people, doesn’t that sound like a pretty good deal? For white people, that is. You should stop complaining.

    • What are you talking about? I didn’t complain. I explained why the policy looked bad, and shouldn’t have been made. In the future, please read posts before you criticize them.

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