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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On South Philly Block, a Legal Fight Over Parking

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Road worrier: Bobby Lemons contends permit parking on McKean Street curbed business at his store. He led an unsuccessful counter-petition he says was sandbagged by his councilman.
It's about fairness, says the woman affectionately dubbed the mayor of McKean Street.

It's about politics, gripes an adversary down the block.

It's about democracy, contends the councilman who green-lighted it all.

It's about - what else? - parking in South Philadelphia.

In March of last year, the 900 block of McKean Street became one of more than 800 areas designated for permit parking by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, allowing neighborhood residents who buy a $35 annual sticker to park on the street at all hours and limiting other vehicles to two-hour parking between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Previously, drivers faced no such restrictions.

On these facts, all parties seem to agree. On the rest? Conservatively, permit parking lies somewhere between bureaucratized travesty and model of efficiency - validated in a vote marked by fraud and intimidation or stringent adherence to due process.

"Individuals love it. They all renewed their permits," said resident Norma Russo, thumbing through a yellow envelope of petitions and PPA letters on her kitchen table, next to the biscotti jar.

"We had a perfect, beautiful block here," said Bobby Lemons, plopping a manila folder of the same files on his corner store counter, next to the cigarette dispenser. "I just want my life back."

It started in the summer of 2008 when Russo - "our mayor," says neighbor Diane Colanero - proposed a permit system. Among the reasons: Teachers from nearby Bok Technical High School, according to residents, often parked on the 900 block so administrators would not notice vehicles missing from the school lot if teachers ducked out early.

The ordinance - for which votes were taken by door-to-door petition of block tenants - passed, 26-7, crossing the PPA's 70 percent threshold for implementation. Lemons was the most vocal dissenter, saying the two-hour limits would hinder his business, with fewer passersby parking on the block of his convenience store. (Lemons lives next to his business, nearly a block's length from Russo.)

Immediately, he appealed the result to the PPA and Frank DiCicco, his councilman. Some signatures were forged, he alleged, while a handful of Chinese and Vietnamese residents were told their cars would be towed if they did not sign.

"I told them I don't like it," said Steven Zheng, whose address was on the original petition. "But she said, 'We need to sign. We need to sign.' "

Russo insisted she had taken a translator, who lives on the block, to any homes that required one. The forgery issue, she said, arose when a man's cousin posed as a tenant and signed his relative's name.

And the car-towing rumor? According to Russo, it began when a neighbor asked what would happen if she did not buy a sticker and continued to park on the block for more than two hours at a time.

"You'll continually get tickets," Russo recalled saying. "If you don't pay for tickets, it's like anything else. Your car will be towed."

Lemons led a counter-petition - 20 names in all - prompting DiCicco to call for a vote by secret ballot in January 2009.

"You sign it, for or against, and it's kept secret by me," DiCicco said.

In March 2009, each property received a notice from DiCicco's office calling the tally inconclusive and announcing the start of an eight-month trial period.

Nearly twice that time has passed, and the sign still stands. No one has heard from the city or PPA since.

"It may have been a tie," DiCicco said.

Lemons contends the permit system gained approval as a political favor. On a speakerphone call with a PPA official last year - broadcast for customers to hear (and corroborate) - Lemons says he was told DiCicco's office had directed the PPA to push for permits. "They love it," Lemons theorized. "It's revenue for the city."

DiCicco and the PPA deny taking the initiative in this - or any - permit case, though the city is required to approve the installation of new signs once the PPA determines that a block has secured 70 percent approval.

"Residents request it," PPA spokeswoman Linda Miller said. "They call to say they're having problems with people parking on their block."

McKean Street's example, atypical as it may be, underscores a slew of quirks in permit procedure. Petitions require only one resident of a household to sign, regardless of how many drivers live there. Ten homes are listed on both the August 2008 petition for permits and a March 2009 list of those opposed. While some initial supporters changed their minds, the dueling petitions also reveal different signatures attached to the same address - daughter for, father against; yea from one spouse, nay from the other.

Michael DeMatteo, owner of Mike's Car Care on the east end of the street, says his business productivity has been hindered by the need to "play car jockey" with customers' vehicles every two hours. He also carps that he cannot buy a permit because his car is registered to his New Jersey home.

"I think that's unfair," DiCicco said. "But I don't make the state laws."

The boundless trial period is a final point of contention from Lemons' corner. Russo, for her part, says the system has existed for long enough that no official follow-up validation is required - like a common-law marriage.

She also says permits appear to alleviate parking congestion. Some neighboring blocks have taken notice of the half-empty sidewalks and followed suit.

"Before March, you would never see a spot," said Jean Hill, whose 1200 block of Dickinson Street approved permits three months back. "The $35 is not that big of a deal."

For Lemons, though, it's about the principle.

"I'll rip $35 up in the street. Our rights were violated," he said, face clenching. "Is this America?"

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