Birmingham Council Amends Laws Affecting Predatory Towing

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By Virginia MacDonald

The Birmingham City Council wrestled with the issue of predatory towing Tuesday and passed two ordinances to start addressing the problems.

Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who heads the council’s transportation committee, has worked to resolve complaints on both issues since 2017.

After council approval of the ordinances, he called the action “a milestone because it has been a lot of effort.”

Among the concrete changes made by the council, it is requiring companies that run private parking lots to post signs within 60 days that clearly state parking rates and give clear information about what to do and whom to contact if your car is booted or towed.

“It’s clear; the rates are posted; there are phone numbers and web addresses you can go to if you have any questions,” Christina Argo with the Birmingham Department of Transportation told the council.

The council also required companies to provide the city with a list of its tow truck drivers, and it required the tow truck drivers to carry identification and treat customers with courtesy.

One of the revised ordinances also defines terms more specifically to try to cut down on confusion and remove loopholes in the law.

The changes were prompted by widespread public complaints about predatory towing and other parking-related issues around Birmingham.

Julie Bernard of the city attorney’s office said the new ordinances revamp one passed 10 years ago. She said that, as more problems arise or companies find new loopholes, the council will adjust the laws to solve those issues.

Council members said some of that work will be defining what determines small and large vehicles and eliminating split fees at storage facilities based on vehicle size.

Council member Hunter Williams said the old ordinance defined large vehicles ranging at the high end of weight between 1,000 to 10,000 pounds. He said it was ridiculous to classify sports utility vehicles as large vehicles using that formula.

“An SUV could be filled with bricks and not weigh that much,” he said.

O’Quinn said that, with respect to the issue of interpreting what a large vehicle is, “There will be people out there doing business who will discover any loopholes.”

Other potential amendments for the council to consider include how an impounded vehicle owner can prove ownership of the vehicle, along with a way for owners to have access to the vehicle at the impound lot to find that proof; parking for special events; and setting up a clearing house for public complaints.

Marcus King and Steven Weil are two wrecker service operators who were instrumental in the crafting of the new ordinance. King hopes the council’s actions will root out the bad apples.

“I think it’s fair for people who are trying to do it the right way,” King said. “It’s probably unfair for someone who has been doing it the wrong way for a very long time, and I’m going to leave those companies nameless, but I think it’s going to change the way they do business.”

While the council admits Tuesday’s action does not address every towing challenge, Argo said she hopes the council’s action will ease the burden if you do find yourself being towed.

“If you do happen to get your car towed, you should have a very pleasant experience and one where you can request information and be treated professionally,” Argo said.

Complaints from drivers have included not just being towed, but having to deal with belligerent parking attendants who would give them no information and not allow them access to their vehicles so they could prove ownership or get items they needed to make their way home. One man was even shot and killed by a tow truck lot attendant after an argument escalated. The shooting was ruled justifiable.

Council member Williams said he hopes that after the parking lot signs go up that the city will start to see “uniformity in the complaints” from the public.

In other parking news, the city has announced a series of public meetings as part of the City’s Right Size Parking Initiative. This initiative is aimed at optimizing parking solutions in the city, according to the press release from the city.

The public meetings will be:

  • 25, 6-7 p.m. at the Birmingham Crossplex, 2337 Bessemer Road.
  • 5, 6-7 p.m., online webinar. The link will be available at birminghamal.gov/parking.
  • 10, 6-7 p.m., Avondale Public Library, 509 40th St. South.
  • 16, noon-1 p.m., online webinar. The link will be available at birminghamal.gov/parking.

 

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