Judge’s ruling on St. Louis’ parking operations sends jolt through City Hall

Parking around the city has always been a pain in the neck, and the rules and regulations that surround it has always been fuzzy. Now with this new ruling, it becomes even more confusing on who is in charge of the duties when it comes to monitoring the parking. Instead of trying to make money, parking should be easier.

ST. LOUIS • A circuit court judge’s decision to void two state laws governing parking operations in St. Louis has some city officials celebrating what they deem a victory for home rule, one with broad implications for the millions of dollars generated by the city’s parking meters, garages and lots.

On Thursday, Judge Michael Stelzer ruled that statutes creating St. Louis’ Parking Commission and tasking the city treasurer with supervising it violate the state constitution. An article in the constitution bars laws that determine the functions of offices in cities with their own charters.

The St. Louis treasurer’s role overseeing the parking division is an unusual one, and it has drawn ire for years from city aldermen who have sought to tap into more of the city’s parking revenue.

A lawsuit filed in January 2017 by James Wilson, a former city counselor under Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr., sought to bring St. Louis’ parking operations under municipal control.

The total operating revenue from parking meters, violations, city-owned garages and lots and rental property for fiscal 2017 was roughly $18 million before expenses were paid, but under the state statutes challenged in the lawsuit, only a portion of that money — about 40 percent, after expenses — makes it into the city’s coffers.

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones has already vowed to appeal, but if the ruling ultimately stands, it marks a long-sought victory for city officials who want to spend more of the money residents and visitors fork over to park in St. Louis.

“We desperately need it, to provide the best quality of city services we possibly can,” said 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who joined the effort to sue the state and city in August. “What it means in a nutshell is the city of St. Louis will finally be able to govern its own parking operations.”

Implications of ruling

Before Thursday’s ruling, there were parallel provisions dealing with parking in St. Louis: state laws and city ordinances.

In February, the Board of Aldermen passed a contingency plan: a board bill sponsored by Boyd, stating that if the state parking statutes were held unconstitutional, the Parking Commission as established under city code would assure the commission’s functions “continue without interruption, and that the Parking Commission’s financial obligations are timely met and satisfied.”

Mayor Lyda Krewson signed that bill into law this month.

“The effect of this decision is, the (state) statutes fall away, and it’s all regulated by city ordinance,” City Counselor Julian Bush told the Post-Dispatch.

The ordinance and laws are similar, Bush said, but the city rules boost the amount of money from the parking meter fund that can be transferred to the city’s general revenue fund.

Under city code, the treasurer is still the chairman of the Parking Commission. But that could change, Boyd said.

The broader impact of the ruling is that the St. Louis Board of Aldermen now has the power to change that formula, or the composition of the Parking Commission, as it sees fit. Bush noted that the city would never be able to access 100 percent of parking revenue due to bond obligations.

“With no state laws applicable to these subjects, the power to reconfigure the parking operations is now vested in the Board of Aldermen,” Bush said. “That’s substantial.”

Jones has warned, however, that that power comes with expensive responsibilities.

“Parking enforcement and revenue officers were city employees before the treasurer took them on,” Jones said in a previous sit-down with the Post-Dispatch. “We take on about $15 million in expenses out of the general revenue fund per year. They talk about how they want more (parking) revenue, but they’ll have to take the expenses too. And the debt. Which last time I checked, was about $65 (million) and $70 million.”

The ruling

Boyd and Wilson’s lawsuit centered on the argument that the state laws dealing with parking in St. Louis were unconstitutional because they imposed additional duties on officials in a charter city.

St. Louis operates as both a city and a county, and its treasurer is an independently elected “county” office, deriving authority under state laws.

The treasurer’s office contended that the Parking Commission wasn’t a municipal entity at all but a “county” office.

Stelzer disagreed, noting that the laws in question clearly require the city director of streets, the chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Streets, Traffic and Refuse committee and the city comptroller to serve on the Parking Commission, therefore creating and fixing duties of municipal officers, which is unconstitutional.

The judge also took issue with the defendants’ push to simply remove those three city officials from the Parking Commission, rather than striking down the laws, leaving only two members: the treasurer and the director of parking operations. Without the other officials, Stelzer wrote, the two remaining members would be approving their own budget and policies.

“The supervisor of parking meters and the parking division would have no oversight as intended by the statutes, and would become the city’s authority for overseeing public parking,” he said. “It is clear the legislature intended the Parking Commission to have oversight over the supervisor of parking meters and the parking division.”

Politics

Jared Boyd, Jones’ chief of staff, said in an email that the treasurer’s office was still getting up to speed on the ruling and its implications.

“We are still reviewing our options, but we always knew this case would be decided by an appellate court,” he said. “The city’s cross-claims was brought against the state of Missouri, so they will also have the opportunity to appeal this ruling.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Joshua Hawley could not immediately provide a comment. Hawley had asked the judge to uphold the statutes governing the St. Louis treasurer and the Parking Commission, echoing Jones’ argument that both were “county” entities.

From the beginning, Jones has maintained that the lawsuit is politically motivated, stemming from “sour grapes” over her near-victory in her campaign for mayor against Krewson and Boyd last year, and her win over Boyd to become treasurer in 2012.

In February, Boyd and Jones’ feud spilled into a hearing room at City Hall, when Boyd subpoenaed Jones to discuss parking operations. She accused Boyd of harassment and questioned why no other “county” office, such as the sheriff or record of deeds, faced the same level of scrutiny.

“If there’s one thing about politics I’ve learned since running for Mayor, it’s never be surprised at what people who are afraid of you will do to try to destroy you,” Jones wrote in a social media post on Friday.

Boyd said he felt “vindicated” by Thursday’s ruling.

“I feel like I won the lottery personally,” he said. “There were so many people suggesting I was just being petty, that it was all personal, and it’s never been personal with me. It’s always been about good government.”

It’s unclear whether the treasurer or the state will ask the court for an injunction pending appeal. But in the meantime, Boyd says he’s meeting with the city counselor’s office next week to work on a transition plan.

“We have an opportunity to right a wrong,” Boyd said. “Now we will operate parking like other municipalities across the world. It just made no sense the way it was set up.”

Source: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/judge-s-ruling-on-st-louis-parking-operations-sends-jolt/article_e6d73676-0378-57ce-a4e0-1c8968095bfc.html

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