Press parking dispute unresolved in San Francisco p. 23

By: Joe Strupp REPORTERS IN SAN Francisco who have had press parking privileges revoked since the beginning of the year received a partial reprieve last month but still face future parking limits as city officials clamp down on press parking rights.
After refusing for four months to renew any of the nearly 1,000 parking permits used by city journalists, city parking officials agreed on April 21 to respect expired permits while seeking tighter procedures for issuing new placards.
The decision followed months of complaints and protests from reporters and editors, who charged that the refusal to issue new permits interfered with the First Amendment right to cover news. Journalists also reported thousands of dollars in parking ticket fines for news vehicles since the beginning of 1994.
"We need some kind of identification to do the job; we need something on our car that can be seen," said Dick Fogel of Bay City News, one of several news organizations that opposed the permit denials. "Our organization and others cover things like toxic spills, riots, fires and shootings. Without permits, we can't do our job."
At issue are allegations of press parking abuse and a dispute over which city agency should issue the permits for reporters.
City officials say many of the permits are not used for reporters on the job but for editors and non-journalists who abuse them. One example cited is Radio Samoa, which has 12 parking placards.
"We have systematically tried to find abuses in the system and have done that," said John Newlin, director of the Parking and Traffic Department.
Since the 1993 permits expired on Dec. 31, no new placards have been issued.
The placards, which had been issued by the Police Department, allow reporters to park at meters for an unlimited span of time as well as many no-parking zones and other areas that are off-limits to most motorists.
The police stopped issuing the permits after a state law in November switched many parking ticket enforcement controls to the Parking and Traffic Department. Parking and Traffic officials had said they would take over press permitting and possibly add a fee for the passes.
But Parking and Traffic officials delayed the issuance of new passes early this year, citing a need to review the process and stop abuses.
"I had information from the police department that there were too many press passes and it was a system out of control," said Newlin, a former police captain. "We were seeking clarification of the parameters of the law so we could set our own procedure."
Allegations that up to half of the 1,000 press placards on the street are abused caused Newlin to refuse to issue new passes until further information was gathered, he said. He also sought an opinion from the city attorney's office about the right to issue press parking permits under state traffic codes.
Deputy City Attorney Lawrence Wayte issued the opinion on Jan. 11 that said the state vehicle code includes no provision directing the city to issue parking permits for reporters. He indicated concern that the city might be preempted by state law from issuing the permits.
But, during a hearing before a committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on April 21, Deputy City Attorney Ted Lakey stated that the city has the right and responsibility to issue the permits.
"Current [city] traffic code allows for the issuance of vehicle press cards and that law is still on the books and pertains to this issue," Lakey said.
At the hearing, before the board's Housing and Land Use Committee, several supervisors blasted Newlin for going over their heads to seek a legal opinion, and for refusing to grant press passes.
"[Newlin] sought an opinion to provide a basis to invalidate San Francisco law to provide press passes; that greatly, greatly disturbs me," said Supervisor Kevin Shelley. "That cuts off all access in [reporters'] right to find out information about breaking news stories."
Supervisor Bill Maher, a longtime opponent of the parking and traffic department, also attacked the delays.
"It's mandatory they must be issued," said Maher. "There is a great distrust of the department on this, a great distrust."
Reporters and editors also testified at the hearing, saying the refusal to renew press placards infringes on the First Amendment right to gather news.
"We acknowledge that there are abuses and too many press passes out there, and that affects us as well," said Ed Cavagnaro, news director for KCBS Radio, who testified. "We have been very disturbed by the behind-the- scenes, in-the-shadows kinds of things that have happened and affected us."
Kandace Bender, metro editor for the San Francisco Examiner, said her reporters have racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets because of the lack of placards. "We're happy to work with you for a solution," said Bender. "But we need something done right away."
San Francisco Chronicle assistant city editor Marshall Kilduff agreed. "We need them, use them, want them, but we recognize their abuses," he said.
At the hearing's end, Newlin said the parking and traffic department will stop issuing tickets for vehicles that display permits expired on Dec. 31, 1993. He said those passes will be honored while procedures for issuing new passes are pursued.


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