The elevator doors open onto the second floor of Binghamton City Hall and reveal what was once intended to be the building’s grand public entrance, but today looks more like the set from a 1970s Charlton Heston post-apocalypse movie. The designers and builders of the government complex that includes City Hall were nothing if not incompetent, and problems began almost from the moment it opened. The complex’s most famous disaster was the 1981 explosion of a transformer in the State Office Building that spread toxic chemicals throughout every floor of the city’s tallest structure, leaving it abandoned and useless for all of 13 years. The complex’s other problems—smaller only by comparison—include the rapid and unfixable deterioration of the massive staircase and second-level public open space that used to cover the parking lot now visible between the buildings. City Hall’s entrance up there is the height of 1970s modern art meets architecture, with a wide bank of glass windows and doors that welcome the visitor into a spacious lobby. No one goes up there anymore; the doors are permanently locked. Today, there’s only one reason for a citizen to ride the elevator up from the lower level and take a walk through that lobby. At the end of a large and inexplicable modern-art sculpture is a sign revealing the second floor’s only true remaining purpose: “Parking Violations Bureau.”
Mr. William A. Mays, the editor of this august journal, went there for a hearing on a recent parking ticket he’d received. Before taking the elevator, however, Mr. Mays had is camera and audio recorder confiscated at the police checkpoint. Such things are not allowed. And by the conclusion of his visit Mr. Mays could see why. As he sat on a bench in the parking violations office awaiting his turn, what he heard coming through the closed door was less of a “hearing” than it was an “arguing.” We don’t know if there’s a specific protocol for these type of proceedings, but the commotion coming through the door made Judge Judy’s courtroom seem like the United States Supreme Court. Later reports would confirm that this is, in fact, standard operating procedure at the bureau. As Mr. Mays waited, the two factotums who manned the bureau’s front desk got into an argument of their own. Profanity was spewed, and after a time the discussion settled into random complaining. Finally, the person appealing in the next room was browbeaten into submission and he made his exit. It was Mr. Mays’s turn.
The hearing room turned out to be just a plain room with a small table and some chairs. The appellant sits across the table from the administrative traffic officer. This man did not give his name and there were no name badges or name plates anywhere to be seen. A woman sat behind him, equally anonymous. Secrecy seems to be the preferred state of the bureau as there’s also no page on the city’s official website that deals with the office at all. Mr. Mays stopped the officer in mid-sentence to ask his name. “Officer Lescault,” he replied.
Police Officer William Lescault’s main job is running these parking hearings, on a salary that’s the same as Mayor Matt Ryan’s and higher than more than half of the rest of the police force. So one might think if he’s not facing dangerous criminals or solving serious crimes, he must at least be an expert in matters of traffic and parking. Mr. Mays questioned Officer Lescault on things such as traffic volume in downtown Binghamton and whether he’d noticed an increase in recent years in meter use, violations, etc., things that might indicate an increased vibrancy downtown. Officer Lescault claimed he didn’t know any of it. And he had equally little interest in discussing meter technology that might be used for recording the times when money is deposited or if someone tries to jam the meter—as he’d complained there’s no way of knowing either one. So Officer Lescault’s chief skill—for which he is handsomely remunerated—appears to be engaging in Bill O’Reilly-style castigation with parking violations as the subject.
Mr. Mays began the main part of the hearing by explaining he’d been downtown as a journalist to cover the grand opening of Galaxy Brewing Company on Court Street, home of the finest cuisine and craft brew you will ever find in one place. While there, he interviewed dignitaries that included Mayor Ryan and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo. Due to the unexpectedly high level of activity at Galaxy, Mr. Mays stayed longer than anticipated and his parking meter ran out. He asked Officer Lescault to please cut a working journalist some slack, but to no avail. The ticket stood. That was okay with Mr. Mays and mostly expected. But then we come to the unconstitutional portion of the whole parking-ticket affair.
Every other jurisdiction we are aware of has a system in which the person receiving a parking ticket gets a significant amount of time—20 or 30 days—to either pay or appeal the fine. If it is neither paid nor appealed within that time, a penalty is added and the process kicks into its next phase. Binghamton is the only place we know of where the amount of time you are given to appeal before a penalty is added is two days. In the case of Mr. Mays’s ticket, it was $20 if paid or appealed within two days, but $40 thereafter. Any lawyer—and most people in general—know that two days is a ridiculously short amount of time to deliver an adequate appeal and essentially amounts to extortion: “Pay the ticket now, or else.” This unconstitutional suppression of a citizen’s legal rights being obvious, the Parking Violations Bureau goes to great lengths to alter the perception through semantics. Officer Lescault insisted to Mr. Mays that the additional $20 is absolutely NOT a penalty. The actual fine is in fact $40. It’s just through the kindness of the City of Binghamton’s heart that it offers a $20 “discount” if the ticket is paid within two days. This explanation, of course, should be added to IQ tests where anyone who buys it automatically gets a lower score.
Pressure to pay also comes in the form of the bureau’s collection-agency tactics between the date the ticket is appealed and the date of the hearing. Mr. Mays received a letter and multiple phone calls ostensibly as reminders of the upcoming hearing. But most of the caller’s time was spent discussing the fine, how much it was, how and where it could be paid, etc.—like the credit-card company that calls to see if you are satisfied with your card but then goes into a lengthy sales pitch on why you need to purchase various other services.
When Mr. Mays’s discussion with Officer Lescault over the differences between “penalties” and “discounts” seemed headed in the same direction as the “why a duck” argument between Groucho and Chico Marx, he decided to take the next step. Ready, willing and able to pay his $20 ticket, he is appealing Officer Lescault’s decision to the city court—away from the officer’s second-floor fiefdom—where the democratic rule of law may have somewhat more influence. The date is currently pending.