Editor's note: As noted earlier, Avi Adelman reports from today's hearing concerning Lone Star Auto Services' towing license.
Lone Star Auto Services' Permit License and Appeals Board hearing started at 10:30 this morning, at City Hall, and you knew it was going to be a long day when an assistant city attorney said, "I have four hours of testimony to present." No doubt, the collective groan could be heard down the hall.
But, moments ago, it ended with the board voting unanimously -- 11-0 -- to uphold the city's revocation of its towing permit.
But the end is only a new beginning: The city says Lone Star can't tow any more, but Lone Star's attorney, James Mosser, insists that if the city tries to stop the company from going about its business before he files his appeal in state court -- he has 20 days to do so -- Lone Star will file a temporary restraining order against the City of Dallas. Representatives from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, also on hand today, say they will prepare another cease and desist order against Lone Star tomorrow, following one sent to the company on Halloween. Says DeLisa Hamilton from the state, "I'll be busy this weekend doing the paperwork."
The city's case is based on several claims, among them Lone Star has been charging the notorious "government entity fee" and other fees not permitted by the city (and, by extension, the State of Texas). The city also says Lone Star has illegally towed cars from various properties without any contracts, and when they had a contract it was not legal because of "false signatures." Lone Star, the city maintains, has also continued to tow cars in a manner that is not in accordance with the city code.
Lone Star is countering that the state and city do not have any authority over how they operate or what fees they can charge. This, they claim, is a federal matter under motor carrier laws (I am not a lawyer, but this piece concerning "bandit" towing companies is probably a good place to start for that discussion).
The first two witnesses to testify in front of the board were people who had their cars towed during the Texas-OU game at the Cotton Bowl -- the whole reason the city revoked Lone Star's license in the first place, after the company yanked the vehicles without warning. They claimed they were allowed to park legally on a church parking lot and another parking lot by someone wearing a vest; in good faith, they paid the appropriate fees. Then, upon returning to the lots, they found the cars gone and someone directing them to Lone Star's pick-up lot.
Mosser, who ultimatelty did not offer up any witnesses in defense of Lone Star, did everything he could to undermine the witnesses. He asked if they knew who owned the property, if they knew the owners personally, if the parking lot had State Fair parking permits, if the attendant had a State Fair parking permit. He asked: Did you see the Dallas Police Department? Did they say it was an illegal tow? Could they pay by credit card, or was cash required?
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The two witnesses handled this quite well. They parked on good faith -- so do many folks who visit the Fair each fall on lots lining Robert B. Cullum Boulevard and surrounding side streets.
The owner of a property next to Lone Star on Beeman Avenue said he found illegally parked cars on his property that very afternoon, so he asked a Lone Star driver how he could get the cars towed. The Lone Star driver offered him a bounty (five dollars) for each car, and the property owner, whose last name is Mora, said it was OK. But when Mr. Mora went to collect his fee, he only got $75 when he thought it should have been $200 (for 40 cars). When the city when to pull the records for the cars towed from his lot, they found all of Lone Star's contracts were originals signed in blue ink, but the contract for this particular lot was a copy of a copy, and the owner said he never signed it.
Hamilton then went through a review of how the state investigated all the complaints against Lone Star: She said the state pulled records and issued numerous notices of violations. The state actually issued Lone Star a cease and desist order on the collection of the government entity fee -- and other charges not allowed -- on Halloween. Nonetheless, the towing company kept towing and charging five days later.
At the same time, the city was moving to revoke Lone Star's license. Which it did in early November, resulting in today's hearing. And tomorrow's lawsuit. --Avi Adelman