- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

Parking meters are precious commodities in downtown Washington, and even more so around the Washington Convention Center. While private lots can accommodate scores of motorists, the bottom line is that the city’s transportation officials failed to draw up a reasonable plan for motorists who attend such large events as the Unity convention in August, which drew 7,000 journalists, and the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Legislative Conference. The events themselves, which drew the attention of the Secret Service, largely went off without a hitch. Parking is an entirely different matter.

During the journalism convention, public parking near the convention was restricted because of tightened security for appearances by President Bush and John Kerry. That’s one thing. At the caucus convention on Thursday, motorists were prohibited from parking on the east side of Ninth Street NW because Lexus, the luxury car manufacturer, had “rented” the parking meters on Ninth between L and M. A man would block meters with his person and a white Lexus SUV. When a motorist asked him to move, he fetched a Metropolitan Police officer who backed his claim as the “renter.”

It is also worth noting that parking availability near the convention center is further hampered by: 1) signs that limit parking on the west side of Ninth Street to commercial vehicles, despite the fact that all the commercial establishments on that block are no longer open; 2) the convention center’s Web site, which incorrectly says the metered spaces are available on a “first come, first serve basis”; 3) police officers who play along with this sham policy; and 4) construction work.

We spoke with the two spokespersons — Sharon Gang, in the mayor’s office, and Bill Rice, spokesman for the Transportation Department, hoping one or both could explain why such a bad policy is in place and reassure us that the city would revisit its rules and regulations regarding “renting” out such public assets. Ms. Gang offered no explanation, and turned the issue over to Mr. Rice, who could not, by deadline, explain why the city “rented” parking meters to a private company.

When public parking is restricted because of visits by the president or other heads of state, the public understands, since those restrictions are almost always lifted when such dignitaries depart. That was not the case Thursday at the black caucus convention.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, who is up for re-election this month, can help shed some light on the issue by holding a public hearing. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who also is seeking re-election and, essentially, is the chief hostess for the black caucus conference, constantly chastises U.S. Capitol Police and the Secret Service for blocking public access. What say she now?

To Police Chief Chuck Ramsey, we ask this: Why are highly paid, highly skilled police officers assigned as traffic cops at the convention center, when bank robbers, killers, gunman, car thieves are frightening the daylights out of people in residential neighborhoods?

Dan Tangherlini, head of the Department of Transportation, which works with the police department on parking and traffic safety issues, can’t seem to get to the bottom of the issue. The Lexus “spokesman” said the agreement to “rent” the parking meters was with the mayor’s office and the police department. There is no Lexus dealership in the nation’s capital. The mayor, or his designee, owes taxpayers an explanation regarding the misuse of public assets. Clearly, someone in City Hall gave the wink — because not one white Lexus SUV had a parking ticket — despite the fact that the meters were blinking red.

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