Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Auditor's appeal for refund denied -- because she paid her tickets

May 28, 2012 

You’d think the City of Raleigh’s parking-ticket appeals process would aim to fix mistakes and reimburse innocent motorists who have been forced to pay somebody else’s tickets.

And you would be wrong.

In this week’s episode of “Beth Wood and the Big Orange Boot,” we learn the secret purpose of Raleigh’s appeal hearings: Not righting wrongs, but wronging rights.

Previously on “Big Orange Boot”:

•  The Road Worrier spots a state-owned silver Dodge Avenger in May, immobilized by a heavy orange boot, with the license number “6.” This suggests that a senior elected official stiffed the city on old parking tickets and now has been brought to justice.

•  But State Auditor Beth Wood, to whom the “6” tag is assigned by law, says the tickets aren’t hers. They date from 2007 and 2008, when her predecessor used that license number. Still, after hours of failed negotiations with city officials, Wood pays $245 to get the car unbooted.

Les Merritt, the former state auditor, also pleads not guilty. Parking records show that a black Ford received the unpaid tickets for loading-zone violations. When Merritt had the “6” tag, he drove a Pontiac, and later a Honda Civic.

Wood, a tall woman who towers in her high heels, strode confidently into her appeal hearing May 17 at Raleigh’s ParkLink office suite in the One Hannover Square building. She gave Michael Mise, the city’s adjudicator, a stack of documents to show that neither she nor Merritt had racked up those tickets.

Mise quizzed her about why she had not called the state government motor fleet agency that day, to get the agency to pay the tickets.

“Personally, I wouldn’t have paid the money” to get the boot removed, Mise told Wood. “I would have gone to the state and said, ‘Hey, y’all have a problem.’ But that’s just me personally.”

Wood was baffled by his reasoning. The state hadn’t given her the ticket and couldn’t get her car unbooted, she said. Only the city could.

“I’m sitting on the street with a large orange sign on my car that is no fault of my own,” Wood told Mise. “I’m running for office. I’m the state auditor. People are walking by saying, ‘She does not pay her parking tickets.’... That car sat on the street for four hours and nobody would help me. I had things to do. So I paid the ticket.”

So did Mise conclude that Wood was not to blame for the old tickets that led the city to boot her car?

Yes.

And did Mise rule therefore that the city should refund Wood’s $245, with a courteous apology?

No.

“I do not believe that Beth Wood is responsible for the unpaid tickets; however, she took responsibility and paid them,” Mise ruled. “She should therefore seek reimbursement from the State of North Carolina Department of Administration to whom the license plate is registered and not the City of Raleigh.”

Got that? Paying the tickets, even under protest, negated her appeal for a refund.

“They strong-armed me into paying the tickets,” Wood said later. “Then they said because I paid the ticket, I accept responsibility. It makes no sense.”

So whose tickets were they? We’ll never know.

But Wood turned up evidence that Raleigh itself was to blame for misidentifying the license plate when the parking tickets were written several years ago. Judges, legislators and other high officials have single-digit license numbers, too; theirs are marked in very small letters with labels such as “Supreme Court” and “N.C. Senate.”

These plates are hard to read.

It turns out that one “6” tag was attached to a black Ford in 2007 and 2008. It was driven by Judge John Marsh Tyson of Fayetteville, then a member of the Court of Appeals. The label said “Court of Appeals 6,” but a parking ticket officer might not know that the state Division of Motor Vehicles had this car registered as: “CA-6.”

Tyson checked his records after getting a call from Wood’s office. He received a few parking tickets during his years in Raleigh, he said. One was dismissed, but he paid the others.

He said the city’s treatment of Wood didn’t feel right. Once Mise agreed she was not responsible for the tickets, “that to me should be the beginning and the end of it,” Tyson told the Road Worrier.

“I hope some justice comes for her, because it doesn’t seem fair that she should have to bear the consequences for something she didn’t do,” Tyson said.

Wood said she no longer wants her $245 back. But she’ll press her case with a fellow elected official, Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

“I want the process and how bad it is broken to be made clear to the mayor,” Wood said.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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