, Port Arthur, Texas

February 24, 2009

PA councilman says silver lining in parking ticket

By Sherry Koonce

By Sherry Koonce

The News staff writer

A police department ID apparently wasn’t enough to convince a city councilman’s wife that the elderly man issuing her a ticket for illegally parking in a handicap zone was performing the job he had been trained to do.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilman Martin Flood said he thought the mostly elderly volunteers who have taken on the task of patrolling stores looking for handicap parking offenders needed better identification.

“They need to have lanyards or an ID, or a vest,” Flood said. “These are elderly people we are asking to do this.”

Flood said his wife had dropped his 75-year-old mother off at Wal-Mart iand was getting ready to back out of the handicap space when she noticed a man standing behind her vehicle taking photos.

Because the man had on civilian clothing, and no visible identification, Flood said his wife became frightened, thinking the incident could be connected with a previous one.

About two weeks earlier, Flood said his wife was followed by a man into the restroom at the mall.

“She thought this could be the same person who followed her into the mall, only now was taking pictures,” Flood said.

For the past two years, about 20 to 25 volunteers from the city’s neighborhood action committees have issued 317 citations for illegally parking in handicap spaces without incident until Feb. 11 when Councilman Flood's wife was cited for the offense, said Terry Bearden, president of the Port Arthur Neighborhood Action Council. The council supervises neighborhood action committees in Port Arthur.

According to Bearden, an elderly volunteer in his 70s saw a car illegally parked in a handicap space at the Port Arthur Wal-Mart.

When the volunteer took a photo of the vehicle to show there was no handicap placard, the driver exited the vehicle and became confrontational.

“The councilman’s wife became real ugly. He (the volunteer) explained to her who he was, showed her his ID and explained what he did,”Bearden said. “He asked if she had a handicap placard, and she said no.”

Bearden said the volunteer patrolman left the area and went to Central Mall, where Mrs. Flood followed. At the mall, Mrs. Flood was joined by her husband, Bearden said.

There, the exchange became heated, when it did not have to, Bearden said.

When a citation is issued, the volunteers follow a protocol established by the police department.

First, they take a photo of the vehicle license plate, then photograph the inside of the car to reflect an absence of a handicap placard.

A form is filled out and forwarded to the police department, and then turned over to the municipal court.

“We are out there doing our best to help the handicapped of the city who are having a hard time,” Bearden said.

Police Chief Mark Blanton said Tuesday that Mrs. Flood had been cited by the volunteer for parking illegally in the handicap zone, and that it had been reported there was some confusion as to the volunteer’s identity.

Bearden said in the three years the volunteers have patrolled the handicap zones, there had been no reported incidents of mistaken identies until Mrs. Flood was cited.

Bearden said the volunteer wore a yellow reflective vest with the name of his neighborhood action group and carried a police-issued identification card when Mrs. Flood was cited for the parking violation.

The volunteers, he said, are trained, certified, sworn in and issued a police department ID before starting patrols.

“This is just very unfortunate that this happened. It is very unfortunate that somene would get ugly with our senior citizens; these folks are out there trying to help,” Bearden said.

Councilman Flood said good had come from the incident.

“I’m glad this did happen to a family member, otherwise we would still have a problem out there that was overseen, missed,” Flood said. “When putting this program in place we did not properly cover all the bugs that would secure the safety for volunteer workers. We need to visibly identify them with a lanyard or a vest when they go out.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Blanton said the department could order vests that clearly identify the volunteers as traffic enforcement officers.