Rowlett Mayor Todd Gottel, like all decent human beings, hates it when able-bodied individuals (read: assholes) park in handicap parking spots. "It really disgusts me," he says, "because the handicapped deserve the same rights as we have. Those folks that violate that should be ashamed of themselves and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law."
Therein lies the problem. Handicap parking violators are rarely brought to justice. Cops in Rowlett seldom have the time to comb the city's parking lots looking for offenders. (In certain neighboring cities, which Gottel claims knowledge of but declined to name, police have given up on handicap parking enforcement entirely.) Rowlett, per an obscure provision of the state's transportation code, deputizes citizen volunteers to write handicap parking tickets, but even that has a limited effect since the volunteers, mostly retired senior citizens, are instructed to avoid confrontation and are usually saddled with other duties -- manning special events and the like.
Gottel thinks he may have found a solution. If police and volunteers lack the resources to properly enforce handicap parking laws, why not farm it out to a private company? "It really comes down to resources, and honestly at the end of the day the folks that are penalized are those that are handicapped, and those spaces were specifically designed to provide equal access to the same stores that you and I frequent."
Gottel didn't come up with the notion. It was presented to him recently by a constituent, Jerry Gossett, who recently founded just such a private company, Parking Enforcement Specialists. Gossett has not yet returned phone calls seeking comment, but he explains on the company's website (its URL, oddly enough, features Gottel's name; the mayor says he has no official connection to the company or its site, though he says he did refer Gossett to a website designer he uses) that he was inspired to create the company by his son Joey.
"As the founder and father of a handicapped son, there is nothing that upsets me more than people that are illegally parked," he writes. "Many times I have personally witnessed able-bodied people parking illegally out of convenience for themselves. Blocking entrances and spaces with no regard for those less fortunate than them."
It's unclear from the website whether the company is currently in the field writing handicap parking tickets. Gottel says he thinks it is, and that Gossett has hired off-duty cops to write the tickets, but he is only sure that it's not yet operating in Rowlett thanks largely to the fact that city staffers aren't sure if farming out handicapped parking enforcement is legal.
With red-light cameras, which is probably the closest analogue to what Gottel and Gosset have in mind, there is a provision in Texas law that explicitly allows cities to contract enforcement out to private companies. Not so for handicap parking, which limits enforcement to a "peace officer or a person designated by a political subdivision to enforce parking regulations."
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What Gottel and Gosset want to know -- and what they have enlisted state Representative Angie Chen Button to help them find out through a request for an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton -- is whether the "person designated by a political subdivision to enforce parking regulations" can also be a business.
"It is our belief that this chapter was intended to cover individuals wanting to volunteer," Gottel wrote in a letter seeking Button's help. "We do not believe it is intended to prevent businesses, such as ours from doing business with a municipality. We are a Corporation, whose purpose is to handle violations that cities do not have the manpower, resources or available funds to dedicate to this cause. We will have our own training program, approved by the cities, our own vehicles, Equipment, insurances and will only be paid when the violations are paid through the Courts. The Cities win, by having the needed coverage, but most of all the Persons with Special Needs win by having someone to look out for them. I wish I could show you just how bad the problem is."
It will likely be several months before Paxton's office gets around to drafting an answer. Meanwhile, we are left to puzzle over an equally thorny question. The car detail shop Gossett owns is called Fat Daddy's Performance. The restaurant he owned was called Fat Daddy's Seafood Grill. Why, then, is it just Parking Enforcement Specialists?
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.