News

Local towing company spotlighted in parking ruckus

A man believed to be a Hustead's employee removes handmade signs about parking in the Trader Joe's neighborhood in downtown Berkeley

By Linda Hemmila

Residents and workers in the area surrounding Trader Joe’s in downtown Berkeley allege that a local towing company under contract to the city is removing signs made by neighbors to warn drivers of possible parking violations. In doing so, Hustead’s, local residents claim, are hoping to drum up more business for themselves as more cars may require towing.

The accusations emerged in a story published on Berkeleyside on January 5 about parking problems in the area of the Trader Joe’s on MLK Jr Way and University Avenue. City signs regarded by many — including Councilmember Jesse Arreguín — to be confusing, have led some local residents to put up their own signs warning drivers of the risk of being cited.

Hustead’s Manager Janice Lee denied the allegations made against the towing company, saying Hustead’s neither contracts with the city nor works in the Trader Joe’s neighborhood.

However a contract on file with the city, dated May 25, 2011, shows the police department renewing a $90,000 contract with Hustead’s. Berkeley spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross confirmed the company has a contract with the city. She said Hustead’s is one of four tow companies that dispatchers from the Berkeley Police Department’s parking enforcement division call on to remove vehicles.

A car owner with five or more violations can, according to local regulations, have their vehicle towed and impounded at the driver’s expense. Cars are also towed in specific tow-away zones. The cost of retrieving a car can run to about $300 excluding citation fees.

Berkeleyside spoke to seven individuals — local residents and some who work in the neighborhood — who said that at around 3:00 pm on most days they hear or see tow trucks searching for improperly parked vehicles to tow, and those trucks belong to Hustead’s. The individuals declined to give their names for fear of retaliation to their vehicles. Certain areas in the neighborhood are tow-away zones after 3:00 pm.

Hustead’s Collision & Tow, based on Durant Avenue, has operated in Berkeley for more than 60 years. Neighbors say they began calling Hustead’s in early November asking the company to tell their drivers to stop removing the signs. They also say they warned management those drivers would be photographed if they persisted.

Photos taken by a local resident in the Trader Joe’s neighborhood show a man in a uniform close to a Hustead’s tow truck removing one of the distinctive fuchsia-colored handmade signs made by a local resident from a tree which was on private property. Other photos show a woman removing white signs.

Several staff members at Kinetic Search Inc., which is located at 1847 Berkeley Way across the street from Trader Joe’s, are trying to prevent the handmade signs from being removed.

“When we came back after the New Year’s holiday, most of the signs had been torn down,” said a staff member.

Another person who works in an office in the neighborhood said the signs were being taken down at an increased pace since Berkeleyside’s story was published. “As soon as we put them up, they vanish,” she said.

Some neighbors accuse the city of maintaining confusing signage and turning a blind eye to the towing in order to boost city coffers. But Anthony Sanchez, legislative aid to Councilmember Arreguín, says there’s nothing nefarious about the city’s signs.

“It’s more of a staff and resources problem trying to create signs and get the job done more than anything else,” he says. Sanchez also says the city doesn’t make any money from towing cars. “We don’t make one dime, it’s all towing fees and storage. We don’t see any of it.”

He adds that parking revenue generally is down from last year. “It may be the economy or people driving and parking less.”

Sanchez says Councilmember Arreguín would like to hold the city to a higher standard regarding the usability of the signs in an attempt to reduce the number of violations. “We remain committed to helping the citizens of Berkeley and protecting them from these towing practices.”

New, clearer parking signs may eliminate some of the confusion surrounding this issue. Arreguín requested that they be reviewed in November and new ones should be ready in about two weeks, according to comments made at last night’s City Council meeting.

Numerous calls to Hustead’s for further comment were not returned.

Meanwhile, Arreguín is asking that an item be added to the January 31 City Council agenda which would see the City Manager consider possible parking and traffic configurations on the MLK block between University and Hearst Avenues that eliminate the need for rush hour tow away zones.

Related:
Parking around Trader Joe’s sparks “vigilante” action [01.05.12]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • berkopinionator

    “Every picture tells a story…”  The City of Berkeley should post official TOW AWAY signs that mimic the very informative handmade signs, including the hot pink background.  Those signs were very visible and descriptive.  Husteads deserves a reprimand and/or fine.  Then again, if I recall correctly, the Mayor once put some things in the trash that he shouldn’t have…

  • Anonymous

    FYI, 6th paragraph, last line needs an edit: “two-away”

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    Fixed. Thanks :)

  • Berkleeboi

    …I’ve hear stories about Hustead’s for years.  Those guys they hire are goons.

  • Anonymous

    So many versions of the truth in this one.  Besides the “we don’t have a contract” vs. “oh yes you do” face-off, I’m trying to reconcile Sanchez’s “[towing cars is] all towing fees and storage.  [The city doesn’t] see any of it” with the fact that there ARE citation fees above/beyond the towing expense.  

    If the city doesn’t get citation fees, who does?  Or is that there is no citation in a tow-away zone and that towing companies are allowed to just tow anything they can find in those?

  • Obamamamajj

    I know that tow company real well. You didn’t even have the whole story about all the stuff they do. You should dig more because they have been doing bad things to people for years and never get caught. 

  • Chris

    So – the old signs were confusing. Arreguin requested in November that new signs be “reviewed”. It’s now the middle of January and it’ll still be another 2 weeks before the new signs are installed. Really? Over 2 months to install a handful of signs. I don’t care how “overworked” city staff is, this is just pathetic.

  • Anonymous

    To clarify, the City makes money from citations, not towing. The towing company receives the towing and storage fee, not the City. My quote was meant to illustrate that the City doesn’t purposely create signs to tow people since we don’t receive those costs, simply the citation. I chalk up the bad signs to a lack of staff time and resources to dedicate to creating signs that are above and beyond minimal standards. The fact that it would take more staff time and resources to change a situation where there City is receiving citation revenue could have merit, but I wouldn’t say its a calculated decision, but rather the unfortunate side-effect of how costs/benefits are structured from the perspective of a bureaucracy. That’s where we step in to do our best and correct these inevitable situations that are endemic to any bureaucratic government. I strongly believe citations are a traffic and parking control mechanism, not revenue generation, and that how it should always be strictly regarded by the City.

  • Anonymous

    Recognizing the unfortunate reality that the new signs may take a while, we took a more immediate step last night at Council to defer enforcement of the No Parking zone until new, adequate signage is installed. However, you still cannot park for more than 2 hours without a permit.

  • Bruce Love

    Hey, Anthony Sanchez, would you be interested in finding and breaking down these numbers (hopefully easy for you in your position)?

    I’m wondering how much the boot program pressured the towing companies, how much money that used to be spent locally is now being exported, if the city is making significantly more on citations (in a sustained way — may be too early to tell), and how the third party fee burden on residents is playing out.

    1. Rate of unpaid citations towing before and after the so-called smart boot program — how often were cars towed for that reason.

    2. Rate of tow-zone towing before and after the boot program.

    3. Third-party revenue size of of towing and storage fees before and after the boot program.

    4. Third-party revenue of boot removal fees after the boot program.

    5. Citation revenues before and after the boot program.

    6. City parking enforcement costs before and after.

  • EBGuy

    Was there any talk at the Council meeting about Alternative 3?  That is, removing the “resident only” parking and returning to 2 hours without a permit.  The parking survey shows that there was no material change in the parking situation after TJ’s opened.  This privatization of the streets is ridiculous.

  • Anonymous

    A year ago while managing the BHS parking lots along Milvia, for team fundraising during a CAL football game, I experienced a similar issue.  The City blocks off Milvia as a staging area for towed vehicles, and posts itty-biity dates for “no parking” on those confusing signs.  The towing takes place on Saturday mornings while the SAT and other tests are administered at BHS for students from around the Bay.  The night prior to a game I posted warning signs for students onto the school parking lot fence.  Upon arriving the next morning we found those signs in the parking lot trash cans.  Several of the parents who’d arrived earlier claimed a tow truck driver was seen pulling them down.  Upon confronting the tow truck drivers one particular driver was verbally combative, while some were sympathetic, but I never found out which company that one driver represented.  Fortunately, when the situation was described to the officer in charge he allowed the vehicles that were parked along Milvia to remain without tickets or being towed.  In the name of goodwill the City should review and change their practices, and tow companies should not be compensated by the number of vehicles they tow.  Only seems to encourage drivers to frantically tow as many cars as possible.  

  • Anonymous

    I can do my best but some of that information may not be readily available and I would have to ask our City Manager to allocate staff time to fish it out.

  • Chris

    Why is this an “unfortunate reality”? I know that city govt moves slowly, but 2+ months to get a handful of street signs made and installed is a little ridiculous.

    Considering the amount of time staff has spent on this issue over the last 2 months, wouldn’t it have been a better use of funds to fast-track the new signs and get this issue resolved ASAP?

  • Bishop G. Berkeley

    It seems like there’s another solution that no one has yet mentioned.  That’s NOT renewing Hustead’s contract for at least a year.  Every child is supposed to learn that there are consequences for his/her actions, and this seems like a pretty logical consequence of Hustead’s “tow-sharking” implementation of its City contract.

    The City IS responsible for Hustead’s behavior, in the following way:  When Hustead’s tows a car under a City contract, it acts as the City’s legal agent.  If the City (Mr. Sanchez?) disavows the behavior described here, it ought to terminate or modify the contract, OR demonstrate that it is going to control the behavior of its agents. 

    But it is not an excuse to pretend that Hustead’s is independent and that the City has no responsibility for the anti-citizen behavior (and that includes lying to reporters) of Hustead’s.

  • Anonymous

    Frankly, I don’t run the City so I cannot claim with any authority the details on why it is taking so long, and I certainly don’t excuse it. However, this wouldn’t be unique to Berkeley.You have 3 basic governing principles at work here that affect the timeliness of installing new signs, the first two being the larger principles at work here: 1) Resource Availability 2) Process and 3) Motivation based on particular bureaucratic arrangement

    1. We have a finite amount of Transportation staff and various projects at any given time of differing levels of priority (i.e. paving, curb painting, sidewalk repair, traffic light programming, etc.) A Department head has to allocate staff time to our various needs based on priority and availability. Secondly, the same goes for fund allocation. The City has to first evaluate the costs of a project, and identify funds based, again, on availability and priority.

    2. Sign design has to go through many iterations and each iteration has to be thoroughly scrutinized to ensure compliance with various sign guidelines, not least the 1000+ pages of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices from the Federal Government.

    3. The sign situation is an issue that doesn’t have an immediate negative impact on the interests of the City. That could possibly explain why the City isn’t bending over backwards to immediately rectify the situation. It certainly recognizes the situation and is committed to fixing it, but frankly, the fact that it takes funds to fix a situation that is also generating funds, I can speculate, would explain why it is not a super high priority (to be fair, there are issues that are of higher priority relating to sidewalk repair and traffic hazards). Yes, the City is created to represent the interests of its citizens, but we all know that is a simple textbook model and doesn’t account for the reality of institutional self interest that inevitably plays in every calculation any city would make (not saying it is just, but that’s how it is and I enjoy enjoy identifying when such interests diverge and working to do what I can to correct it)

    I certainly am not a fan of how slow government acts, but in this case, resources and process would be the biggest factors here and are not unique to Berkeley city government.

  • Bruce Love

    I see.  At some point that data ought to be fished out anyway (in my opinion) in order to assess the outcome of the investment in smartboot stuff.  The city doesn’t do enough public examination of its past spending decisions and their actual vs. intended effects.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly disavow but don’t have that kind of power yet :) I’m merely a staffer for 1 councilmember. I would imagine the incident hasn’t gone unnoticed by the City Manager and it is not something that will be thrown the dustbin.

  • TTPCS

    How does the City justify imposing rules that is lacks the resources properly to administer?  I once fought and won a parking citation where the signs were improperly and untimely posted.  As far as I am concerned, if you cannot administer a program, leave it alone.

  • TTPCS

    Gee, Mr. Love.  Do you think that the people running this town have time to figure how well or poorly their ideas actually work.  And please remember that the boot deal was based on the premise that it cost them nothing to do the program.  Also, the towing companies – I don’t recall which ones – still have a role in the boot scheme since the bootee have to return the boots to a tow yard in order to recover the $500 deposit that is part of the cost of getting the boot.

    May I add to your list this question:  how many of these scofflaw vehicles get left at the curb?

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good question and I wish I can explain that. I don’t work in the machinations of the City nor makes those decisions -I merely do what I can with the Councilmember to catch these situations and fix them in our limited power. But I certainly agree with your sentiment.

  • Bishop G. Berkeley

    The “Mr. Sanchez?” was intended as an invitation for your response/participation, not a suggestion that you unilaterally solve the problem.  Sorry if it came across otherwise.

    I wish I had the same faith in the City Manager’s oversight that you suggest, but for many of the reasons you acknowledged earlier (with impressive candor, I would add), namely bureacratic priorities, I do not.  Aggressive oversight of City contracts has, in my personal opinion, been a major shortcoming for all Berkeley governments of the last three decades.

  • Ticked Off

    According to Berkeley Patch, “Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan requested that the city establish a “Parking Enforcement Manager” position, with the goal of “strengthening” the parking enforcement unit. The new position was approved by the city council in Tuesday night’s meeting and becomes effective Jan. 23. According to the job description for the new position, the parking enforcement manager will “implement strategies for efficient staff deployment, and evaluate and recommend methods to increase revenue.” Hm, not revenue generation?

  • Anonymous

    I said that in the normative as in: I strongly believe citations are control measures, not revenue generators, and that’s how it should be seen by the City. I am disappointed, if not ticked off, too, by the fact that that is not how it is seen. In fact, I’m mad at myself for not catching that item approving the parking enforcement manager -I certainly would have opposed it. It was buried in the myriad of consent items.

  • Charles_Siegel

    To put it more concisely: everyone thinks his own project is most important. 

    You think these parking signs are the first thing staff should deal with.  Other people think sidewalk repairs or new stop signs are the most important thing for the city to deal with. 

    I have been waiting for over 10 years for the city to improve the bicycle boulevards’ crossings of major streets and make them safer, and there is no action in sight. 

    Those of us who have experience with the city know that two months is very fast.

  • Bishop G. Berkeley

    That’s too rich!  What a priceless Berkeley moment.  Need a sign?  Hire a manager!

    (Presumably SOMEONE was managing the program before this–poorly enough that we’ve created a whole new position to replace him/her.  I don’t suppose we’re going to be rid of that person’s salary/benefits, are we?  And we certainly wouldn’t just replace him/her with someone who is simply better at the job?  Just rhetorical musings, I already know the answers….)