- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

D.C. Council members have long distributed to family and friends special license plates that have accrued more than $20,000 in city parking fines, which the plate owners likely will not have to pay.

Since the early 1970s, council members and the mayor have bestowed the license plates — which feature low numbers — as political prizes. The 13 council members have exempted themselves from parking restrictions and fines since 2001.

When lawmakers leave office, the plates they have distributed are supposed to be returned to the city to be reassigned to new officials. However, the tickets owed on those plates often go unpaid, The Washington Times has found.

In addition, when new owners receive the low-numbered plates, previous tickets can transfer with them and may not show up in city records when the holders register their vehicles.

For example, Johnny Gaither, a neighborhood services coordinator, said he registered his car’s low-numbered license plate last month. But city records show the plate had outstanding tickets from 2001 and 2002, long before it was given to him by council member Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat.

Mr. Gaither said the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) did not notify him of the tickets when he registered the plate, adding that he did not know about the tickets until The Times contacted him yesterday.

He informed the DMV yesterday that the tickets are not his. The agency confirmed that he did not own the plate when the tickets were issued and told him the violations would be expunged.

“I have to mail the letter I got from the council member when I received the tags, and the DMV will disassociate the car from the tags,” Mr. Gaither said. “They are not my tickets. What I don’t understand is that if I owed tickets on the tags, why did they let me register the car?”

Mr. Gaither said DMV officials told him they will contact the previous owner of the plate about the parking tickets.

However, if the violations are very old or if DMV cannot find the previous owner, the tickets can be forgiven and never paid, city officials said.

“If there were outstanding infractions, it would be difficult for some of those tags to be reissued before some of those infractions were cleared up,” said Ira Stohlman, secretary of the council.

Mr. Stohlman said DMV likely would erase the violations against the plate, but “if it is possible to track down the individual, the DMV would pursue that person.”

DMV spokeswoman Janis Hazel said the agency does not forgive violations.

“No tickets are ‘forgiven,’” she said. “If they were assigned to the incorrect resident, then we do the computer fix to reassign them to the correct person.”

Miss Hazel said a glitch in the DMV computer system has kept the database from recognizing when a new owner is assigned a low-numbered license plate. She did not say when that glitch would be fixed.

The District last year reported issuing $69 million worth of parking tickets, and the city government is planning to increase fees for residential parking permits.

The Times obtained license-plate information and holders’ names through a request to the Office of Secretary of the Council. Violations associated with specific license-plate numbers are public record.

Longtime city activist Gilda Schenkersaid she paid $300 in parking tickets owed on her license plate the last time she registered her car. She has owned her tag since the late Polly Shackleton, Ward 3 Democrat, was elected to the first city council in 1974.

“That’s very odd,” Mrs. Schenker said. “I renewed my license not long ago, and I had no tickets, because, you know, they won’t let you renew your license with those tickets.”

Frank Kameny, a founder of the homosexual rights movement, has been allowed to keep his special license plate since 1979. He said he plans to pay the $385 he owes before he renews his registration this year.

Raymon Murchison, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) 7D, said he is aware of the $1,495 in tickets on his plates.

“I’ve made arrangements to pay them,” he said. “You can’t leave them.”

Anwar Shakir Saleem Sr. said the tickets owed on his son’s car were issued while his son was deployed with the military. His son, who also is named Anwar Saleem, is in the process of having the tickets forgiven, the elder Mr. Saleem said.

Other top violators contacted by The Times did not return calls for comment yesterday.

In 2001, council members voted to exempt themselves from many parking restrictions when on official business. If members are ticketed, they can submit their tickets to the secretary of the council, who contacts the DMV to have the tickets revoked.

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., a Ward 5 Democrat running for mayor, has not submitted the tickets associated with his vanity plate since May 11, 2004, when he was issued a ticket in the 1100 block of Constitution Avenue NW for parking during rush hour.

Mr. Orange has $720 in tickets associated with his plate.

Violations on plates issued by the current council date as far back as 1999.

Council members have a total 459 tags available to distribute. As of yesterday, 72 holders of those plates owed the city money for parking tickets.

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