When the promised snowstorm failed to arrive in New Haven Tuesday afternoon, Honda Smith and a city tag-and-tow team faced a dilemma on Valley Street: Place tickets on 60 cars illegally parked on the odd side of the street? Or let it slide?
Public Space Enforcement Officer Honda Smith had called for the tag and tow team hours before when the snow was flying and the visibility was low.
With a Nor’easter expected to dump as much as a foot of snow on New Haven, Smith, the public works department’s public space enforcement officer, was out on her usual storm rounds: Making sure cars were out of the way so plow trucks could get through to remove snow and keep people safe.
She has made the rounds of city management teams lately to reinforce how important it is for people to observe the no-odd-side residential parking bans imposed in storms. The city declared just such a ban Monday night to run through mid-Wednesday. The public has largely come to support over the years the idea that the city needs to ticket and tow offending cars to protect public safety — and get the message out to people to obey the law in future storms.
Smith called in the problem on Valley Street Tuesday morning just as heavy snow finally started falling.
By the time the tag-and-tow officers arrived hours later from the city Traffic, Transportation, and Parking Department, the snow had slowed down, for good. It turned out no real snow would accumulate on the streets. Plows wouldn’t need to return.
Now a traffic enforcement officer stood on the asphalt-visible street and said he felt bad. He didn’t want to tag and tow cars when it looked like a very hyped storm had just fizzled out. He asked Smith to call Traffic, Transportation, and Parking Deputy Mike Pinto. If Pinto OK’d tagging without towing, he said, he would get it done.
Smith got Pinto on the phone and suggested a solution: Don’t tow the cars, since they no longer posed a threat to public safety. But do follow through with the tickets.
Smith said Valley Street neighbors in the area are habitual violators of the snow parking ban. She should know; she lives in the neighborhood. And she tried to warn neighbors that they were risking a ticket and being towed, even going so far as to post it on her Facebook page.
“If we tag them rather than tow them it will serve as a warning,” she reasoned. “If you give a ticket to chronic violators than we’ll have better compliance.”
Pinto agreed. They made that decision in a phone conversation while Smith rode around the west side of town making sure that plows in the area were able to pass through and clear the streets. She documented a legion of potholes while juggling a scanner and two cell phones.
But by the time she made her way back to Valley Street the traffic enforcement officer was even more reluctant.
Smith told him the word from Pinto was to tag but not tow.
He argued that given that the snow had completely stopped and the roads were passable, there was no way to justify ticketing the cars despite the fact that the snow ban remained still in effect. Tuesday’s snow parking ban was slated to be in effect until 4 p.m. Wednesday but ultimately was canceled at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s not my call,” she said to the enforcement officer. “That’s up to you guys.”
This time the enforcement officer called Pinto himself. The word came back: OK. Just let it go.
Around the same time, a man came shuffling down his empty driveway. Eyeing the two tow trucks across the street, standing next to a car, he asked whether he needed to move it from the street.
Another traffic enforcement officer told him not to worry about it.
And that is how 60 car owners on Valley Street got very lucky in the aftermath of Tuesday’s storm.
Even more got lucky in the Hill.
Traffic enforcement was called for tagging and towing around Plymouth, Morris, and Lamberton streets in the Hill. But by the time Smith arrived there, the decision had been made to call off the tagging and towing.
Another 237 car owners in New Haven were not as lucky Their cars had been ticketed and the majority towed earlier in the day when the storm was still believed on.
Pinto said Tuesday afternoon that when the snow stopped — falling way short of projections, with no appreciable accumulation on the roads — the department decided to take a hiatus on ticketing and towing violators of the ban.
Asked whether those towed and ticketed earlier Tuesday had grounds to fight their ticket based on the city’s decision to not continue ticketing even though a ban remained in effect, Pinto said absolutely not.
“Those people were very much in violation,” he said. “Just because we stopped ticketing to reevaluate how we would move forward doesn’t affect the validity of those tickets.”
Of the 237 cars tagged and towed during this latest storm event, 134 were tagged and towed between midnight and 6 a.m., during the overnight shift. Three teams of two parking enforcement officers each were on duty for the overnight shift.
The city has tagged and towed 528 cars since March 1 for Violation 74, which is the code for snow emergency violations, according to Pinto. That means that 528 cars total have been tagged and towed for the three Nor’easters that have hit New Haven in the past two weeks.
Pinto said that there was “very good compliance” for this parking ban and that 134 overnight violations were a low number for a storm. Ray Willis, the department’s manager of operations process improvement, said that the highest number of cars he’s seen tagged and towed overnight during a storm is closer to 400.
Many of this storm’s violations were on Mechanic and East streets in East Rock and Beers Street in Dwight. The department did a few targeted sweeps of those areas because they are “problem areas” where many violations have been found in the past.
As the public works department’s sole public space enforcement officer, Honda Smith can issue tickets for, say, leaving trash bins on the curb too long. She also can issue citations and fines for construction violations. She doesn’t have the authority to write parking tickets. So when the verdict came down from Traffic, Transportation, and Parking, she didn’t argue her belief that “a violation is a violation.”
“They got a reprieve on that one,” Smith said of the lucky car owners.
So she headed to her next task, switching from street safety mode to inspection mode. Smith was 12 hours into a 16-hour shift that started at 2 a.m. Having also worked for the city for 29 years — 20 of those in the public works department — Smith has learned to pick her battles. (She hasn’t yet decided if she will retire when she reaches 30 years of service later this year.)
In the meantime, she wants New Haveners to remember that trash pickup is scheduled as usual for Wednesday. She reminded people to keep trash bins off the curb line no more than 12 hours after pickup. They also shouldn’t be out more than 10 hours before pickup.
Thomas Breen contributed to this report.