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The worst city government.

Just days after arriving in Washington to take up my new job as an editor with the Monthly, I got a bracing introduction to local municipal procedures.

It all started with an unusually violent traffic incident not far from my apartment-a man named Jerome Greene demolished much of a busy block of K street downtown with the rented truck he was barely at the wheel of. Before the apparently drunk Greene could be arrested by police, he crashed into a dozen vehicles, rammed five utility poles, collided with a city bus, and, worst of all, ran over a woman who was trying to get out of his way. Many witnesses thought he chased her down intentionally.

Although the D.C. cops confirmed that Greene was legally intoxicated and that within die past two years he'd been convicted of heroin and assault charges, they set him free two hours later, pending a court appearance. The D.C. police chief, Maurice Turner, defended his department's action as "proper procedure."

Then a few days later it was revealed that Greene had received a D.C. driver's license despite having had his New York license suspended three years earlier because of unresolved traffic violations there. The head of the D.C. motor vehicle office, Larry Greenberg, said that Greene got a license through the bureau so effortlessly because he stated that his driving privileges had never been suspended anywhere. "We had no reason but to believe it was his first driver's license," Greenberg told The Washington Post, even though Greene is 42 and the New York traffic violations computer-to which D.C. authorities have access-contains 72 suspensions against Greene-each one for a moving violation.

Compare all this to the experiences I bad my first week in town, A few days after the Greene disaster, I was walking to work when I passed the spot where I'd parked my car the night before. Only now there was too much spot and not enough car. I immediately called die police to report the theft. A half-hour later the cops called me back with great news-my car had not been stolen. Actually, not so great. It had been towed. "Why?" I asked. "Rush hour tow-away zone," said the voice in uniform.

I was pretty positive I hadn't parked in a forbidden spot, but I went back to check. Sure enough, there were no signs on the block where I'd last seen my car. I did now notice that there were some signpoles in the area, but they were just bare corrugated sticks rammed pointlessly into the ground.

Buoyed by this discovery, early the next morning I went in search of justice. At around 8:30, I arrived instead at what the city calls The Bureau of Adjudication. Inside there were about 100 glum people waiting. Picture a Soviet breadline, then subtract the bread. I figured I wasn't like all these other unhappy folks: speeders, drunk drivers, and scofflaws. Glove compartments wadded with old citations. Not me! I've never even had a speeding ticket. And besides, I was innocent!

That was my thinking at 8:30. By 11:30 when I was still not walking in to my "walk-in" hearing, my idealism was a little dulled. I had now been in custody longer than Jerome Greene.

Nevertheless, I figured that once I got before a judge, everything would be resolved quickly. When it was finally my turn, I was offered the choice of Admit, Admit With Explanation, or Deny.

"Deny," I said, and I started to lay out my case. But even after I got to my description of the parking space the judge remained unsmiling. "Do you have pictures?" she asked me, looking down at me hard through her metal-rim glasses. No, I said, but I went on to explain that I had gotten corroboration from the people at a nearby shop, I showed her their business cards with names, addresses, and phone numbers. "Are these people here today? Do you have statements from them?" was all she said to that.

Without satellite photographs, live witnesses or affidavits, all l could get was a continuance. Greene's word was his bond. Mine was worthless. The judge requested a field investigation, which she said could take four to six weeks. And although I have a local job and residence and no criminal or traffic violation record, the city wouldn't just return my car before that inquiry was completed favorably. Even though I'd done nothing wrong, I had to pay $53 up front. (The $50 was the towing fee, the $3 was the storage fee I'd incurred waiting around for my hearing.)

After ponying up the money, I took the Metrorail to the bus to the impoundment lot. The woman at the gate was unexpectedly pleasant, but she was the exception. Inside where I had to take my paperwork was Attitude Central. The young woman dealing with me from behind the plate-glass was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic that I could barely understand her After she processed my forms, she told me where my car was. As soon as I got to it, I discovered that my key no longer opened the driver's door. Apparently, the tow boys broke the lock when they foreed their way in (to release the parking brake and put it in neutral). Now I could only get in by using the passenger's side and climbing across. I went back to the office and told Ms. Attitude about the damage. Without saying a word or even looking up at me she handed me a sheet of paper. I waited for some son of accompanying explanation, but clearly, none was on the way. As for a swift response from somebody else, the document in my hand soon dissuaded me. It stated that the mayor could legally take six months to act on my damage claim.

-Scott Shuger
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Title Annotation:Washington, D.C.
Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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