- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

D.C. Council Member Kathy Patterson, saying she is frustrated by Mayor Anthony A. Williams' "failure to clean up" the city's towing industry, has asked the council to intervene and hold a series of new hearings on the matter.
"We heard promises last August that a new, centralized towing system would be in place this year, and the year's more than half over," she said yesterday. "Towing is a scandal and a scam, and District residents deserve better."
Mr. Williams originally promised to take action after an investigation conducted by the D.C. inspector general found private towing companies had conspired with D.C. police to confiscate vehicles, hide them from their owners and charge the owners exorbitant impound fees. The mayor originally said regulations would be in place by January 2002.
In February, the FBI announced the arrest of scores of people following a four-year probe of towing abuses involving city officials and private tow companies.
Mr. Williams has since vowed repeatedly that he would push through the council a set of regulations to crack down on unscrupulous tow-truck operators preying on the public, but the reforms have not materialized and predatory, tow-at-will practices of some tow companies continue, say D.C. council members who field angry calls from car owners complaining that they have been scammed.
Mrs. Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, this week asked the council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment chairman, Carol Schwartz, at-Large Republican, and the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs chairman, Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, to hold a joint follow-up hearing by early October on "the issue of towing reform and the lack of progress."
When a reporter from The Washington Times asked at a press briefing this week whether the new towing regulations were dead in the water, Mr. WIlliams said: "They're not dead. Those regulations are alive."
The mayor then referred all questions on the matter to his recently appointed deputy mayor for operations, Herbert R. Tillery, and joked to reporters that "Dr. Tillery" would "give us a medical update on the 'regs."
Mr. Tillery said the regulations were being revised and would be put before the council for final approval "within [a] November or December time frame."
In the District, there are no requirements that companies that tow vehicles for the police or the Department of Public Works be licensed. There also is no limit on the amount a tow company can charge a motorist whose car has been impounded, even if that motorist is not notified until weeks after the car is towed.
Since an inspector generals report spotlighted illegal towing activity, city officials have repeatedly postponed action and blamed delays on politics, red tape and bureaucratic bumbling.On Jan. 11, officials in the mayors office said efforts to regulate towing were being stymied by a bureaucratic argument with the council over whether the mayor had the power to crack down on the private industry. A week later, the council passed legislation granting him authority.
In February, Van A. Harp, assistant director of the FBIs Washington field office, appeared at news conference with Mr. Williams, saying that a secret, four-year probe of towing-industry corruption in and around the District resulted in 60 arrests. The same day, Mr. Williams produced 15 pages of proposed towing regulations.
The proposed regulations were open for public comment until March 20, but during the weeks that followed, Erik S. Gaull, the mayors point man for creating them, quit his post to run for the council - "ironically," as it has been called by some in city government, for the seat presently held by Mrs. Patterson.
With more than three months gone by since the public comment period ended, Mrs. Schwartz said on Friday it "seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time" for the regulations to be revised and put before the council for final approval.
"I am impatiantly waiting," Mrs. Schwartz said in a telephone interview. "Staff members in my office call every two to four weeks to find out whats taking so long, and were told [the revised regulations] will be coming to us soon."
If the regulations arent completed by November or December, it will be another whole year "weve had to wait," she said. "Im certainly hoping they are finished in the next month or two so we can hold a joint hearing in the fall."
Mr. Tillery, who was appointed to the deputy mayor post on June 3, said there is a committee in place under his oversight pushing to achieve the goal of getting a fully regulated and computerized central towing system "off the ground this year."
Asked why it has taken so long, Mr. Tillery said: "I just came in here on the 3rd of June, and I cant really say what loaded the process down prior to my arrival, but I can say that now that Im here, I have a logical process to get this done. Im going to be pushing real hard, but if I fail it wont be because we didnt push."
Mr. Tillery said that more important than the issue of finalizing a written set of towing regulations is the issue of establishing a central computer system to integrate all of the public agencies involved in towing, including the Metropolitan Police Department and the Departments of Public Works and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
"What were trying to do is regulate all public tows," he said. "That means we have to have some sort of computer technology in place that will be centralized in the Department of Public Works so that we can address any of the situations that would cause a vehicle to be towed and have a central tracking system to follow the status of that vehecle no matter who tows it in this city."

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