Towing the Line at City Hall

The city council had plenty on its plate Wednesday, including replacing Lynn Flint Shaw on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board and a vote on the zoning for the St. Regis Hotel. Also on the agenda: a controversial ordinance to tow uninsured vehicles, which led to more than two hours of intense discussion.

The vote was expected to be close, likely falling along racial lines. While none of the council members came out and said it, several minority members danced around the notion that the ordinance was unfairly targeting blacks and Hispanics who represent the lower income bracket in Dallas and may not be able to afford insurance.

However, the vote was an easy victory at 10-5, but as always, there is much more to the story. Let's jump to dive into the discussion, where we'll address the disrespect of Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle by a council member -- along with a downright silly proposal by another, which called for asking the state to base insurance rates on income.

The ordinance, which will take effect January 1, 2009, allows police to tow vehicles stopped for city or state traffic violations if the owner is unable to provide proof of financial responsibility, known commonly as proof of insurance. An ordinance already on the books allows officers to tow vehicles without insurance if they are involved in an accident.

I've never been hit by an uninsured motorist, but I've heard plenty of horror stories to know this law makes a lot of sense -- especially because it's against state law not to carry liability insurance on a vehicle. My only concern was that some people with insurance may not have proof, which would result in tons of vehicles headed for the pound for no good reason.

But a new state database able to verify insurance is under construction and should be ready by the fall, which is why the effective date was changed from July 1 to January 1. This allows time for the database to get up and running and work out the kinks by the time this ordinance takes effect.

After hearing from citizens largely in favor of approving the ordinance, council discussion began with most of the minority council members speaking passionately against the item, while the white ones all claimed this was a no-brainer.

Council member Carolyn Davis, who is not shy about speaking her mind and calling out city officials, was not prepared and asked questions she should have been asking much earlier than the day she was about to cast her vote. An interaction she had with Chief David Kunkle stands out not just because it showed she didn't even know the current ordinance, but also because it was seemed awfully discourteous toward the chief.

"We have an ordinance that's already on the books," Davis said. "How is that ordinance working, ah, chief?"

"I'm sorry, Ms. Davis," Kunkle responded. "I'm not sure I understand ..."

She interrupted: "What ordinance do we have on the books right now where you can tow an individual's car?"

"The officers have broad discretion to take ...," Kunkle said.

Interrupting again, Davis said, "Ryan? Where is Ryan? Come up to the plate, Ryan," referring to First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans.

"Did you want me to answer the question?" Kunkle said.

"No, I'll get it from Ryan," Davis said. "I'm asking a question."

"I'm answering the question," Kunkle said.

"Let me talk to Ryan, chief. Let me talk to Ryan, please," she said. "Ryan, what ordinance do we have now on the books right now where an individual's car can be towed?"

Evans then explained something Kunkle is plenty qualified to talk about: that police can only tow cars without insurance that have been involved in an accident.

I spoke with Kunkle about the incident, and he suggested perhaps he wasn't communicating well enough.

"I was trying to answer her question, and I guess I wasn't doing a good enough job or specific enough," Kunkle told Unfair Park. "I'm not really sure what was going on, frankly."

Then it was time for a dose of flawed reasoning from council member Steve Salazar. He claimed that with the high crime rate in Dallas, officers should be out catching murderers and rapists instead of something that "doesn't make an affect on the crime rate." Salazar said it's a sad day when the police department is being "coerced" by the council and being told how to do their jobs.

"We're being asked to tell our officers that it's more important for you today to go out and catch someone that doesn't have insurance as opposed to going out and catching the burglars who are burglarizing our homes and our businesses," he said.

This appeared to be a smokescreen to pander to the lower income Hispanics in his district -- unless Salazar really thinks officers will be leaving murders, rapes and burglaries on the backburner while they tow vehicles.

Eventually, Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Elba Garcia took the mic, and her comments were most shocking of all. She started by saying she wanted to keep officers on the beat, and claimed 16 police officers would need to be moved from neighborhoods to traffic as a result of this ordinance. Of course, she didn't run that by Chief Kunkle, who assured Unfair Park, "We're not going to reassign anybody."

Garcia said this was an economic issue for families, who would have to choose between paying for food and utilities or insurance. She also claimed the increased business at the auto pound would require an expansion costing $3.3 million, but she later suggested the pound should be relocated, admitting that cost would exceed $3.3 million.

Speaking more passionately than I've ever heard her, Garcia spiraled into a bit of a rant, resulting in the quote of the day while suggesting the city ask the Legislature for more affordable insurance.

"Why can't they have insurance based on your income? If you make more money, you pay more. If you make less money, you pay less. Wouldn't that be fair? Wouldn't that be equality for everyone? I think so," she said. "So I have, Mayor, say this before, but this insurance has to be for everyone, including immigrants that sometimes could not have a driver's license."

I'm guessing County Commissioner Ken Mayfield will be grabbing this audio and stashing it away for when Garcia tries to unseat him.

Garcia eventually made a substitute motion, asking for a delay on the item until the state database is in place and the ordinance could be evaluated by the council's Public Safety Committee, of which she is the chair. That was narrowly defeated 8-7, with all the minority council members voting in favor of the delay.

It was especially interesting that Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway voted for the delay, since he made these two statements during discussion: "I know the vote should go down today," and, "I want to take a vote today one way or the other."

Angela Hunt did perhaps the best job of summarizing the need for the ordinance in her blog; also, of course, the pound is a cash machine for the city. Therefore, more cars being towed equals more money. Most to the point, the notion that this targets low-income people is totally ridiculous -- because, well, one could make the same case about registering your car or getting a state inspection?

So it's a done deal, and Garcia's consolation prize was having the council sing "Happy Birthday" to her after the vote. And for those wondering, the towing will run you at least $185: a $95 towing fee, a $50 notification fee, a $20 impound fee and $20 per day of storage. Happy birthday.