Thursday, December 3, 2009

When Looters Become Booters

Government intervention often becomes a magnet for looters--those who use political connections for economic gain at the expense of others. Consider the case of Joe Martin, Chief Executive Officer of Equipark, a company that provides a "booting" service for private parking lots downtown. KPRC reported on this several weeks ago (HT: blogHouston):
He [Martin] admitted that he helped craft the city's boot ordinance while serving on the city of Houston Parking Commission.

"It kind of dawned on me that there may be a business opportunity here," he said.

Martin said he stepped down from the Parking Commission before the City Council passed the law to avoid a conflict of interest.
According to Martin, there is no conflict of interest if one helps draft an ordinance and then sets up a business to profit from the new law. What difference does it make when he resigned? He helped draft the law, and resigning before it was passed does not change that fact.

More importantly, why is the city writing ordinances regarding what private businesses may or may not do on their own property? Government's purpose is to protect our rights, not dictate what is permissible. My question of course, is rhetorical.

When the city formed the citizen-led Public Parking Commission in 2006 it was intended to be forum to resolve parking issues, that is, protect consumers. Protecting consumers is a typical justification for badgering private companies and forcing them to act as government officials declare proper. And what has followed from this consumer "protection"? According to KHOU and KPRC, a litany of complaints: those who have paid a parking fee are still getting "booted", and even when they can prove that they have paid the parking fee, they get to pay another $25 to have the "boot" removed. KPRC's story states:
An HPD spokeswoman said that unit [the police department's Auto Dealer's Detail, which enforces the city's boot law] is constantly fielding complaints and is working to make sure private boot companies are following the law.
The city has made this vehicular hostage-taking legal, and Mr. Martin was quick to realize that he could benefit. And since his customers are the parking lot owners, he could care less how many drivers he improperly "boots. At a minimum he gets $25 every time an employee immobilizes a vehicle, even if they do so with absolutely no justification.

Indications are that Martin made a conscientious effort to avoid violating the city's ethics laws--he disclosed his business idea to the city while he sat on the parking commission. But government intervention makes it impossible for anyone involved to act with complete integrity. When government forces individuals to act against their own judgment, neither the victim nor the victimizer can act in accordance with rational principles.

The fact is, city council should not be involved in this issue. If parking lot owners want to use "boots" on their property, that is between them and their customers. If they want to use "boots" with reckless abandon, they will face the consequences in civil court. But as it stands, companies like Equipark, as well as the parking lot owners, can hide behind the law, claiming that they acted with complete probity.

The city's meddling has created a political issue where none should exist. It has allowed political insiders to financially benefit under the protection of the law. It has allowed looters to become "booters".


Mr. Moderate said...

You wrote "If they want to use "boots" with reckless abandon, they will face the consequences in civil court."

That's a disingenuous statement, and you know it. No one is going to take a business to court over a $25-$100 booting charge. Court costs are more than that, as are the legal fees. Or, the business you sue files bankruptcy and has all liabilities discharged. Properly crafted regulations go along way towards keeping consumers safe from predatory businesses that are motivated solely by unethical profit seeking.

Brian Phillips said...

Small claims court is the perfect venue for cases such as this, and no attorney is required. Further, the victor will recover court costs.

You seem to have missed my point. The booting regulations were enacted to protect consumers, but they aren't doing so. All they have done is enable the booting companies to hide behind the law.

Predatory businesses (which are small in number) will find ways to be predatory, regardless of the regulations. When government intervenes through regulations, it invariably creates unanticipated problems, which then "requires" more intervention. Rather than attempt to anticipate the ingenuity of frauds and swindlers, the government should prosecute those who actually engage in such activities.

Anonymous said...

They are absolutely using "boots" with reckless abandon. At our holiday party, 5 cars were booted to the tune of $113 each, for parking expired by 15 minutes or less. That is ridiculous. The businesses surrounding these lots should be aware companies like ours will use other venues rather than risk that much employee dissatisfaction.

Anonymous said...

The ordinance clearly states that if a receipt is improperly placed that the fee (upon presenting said receipt) is $25.
I was booted for this exact thing, I forgot to put my receipt in my window. I was angry so I researched it - had this ordinance not been in place and booting were not allowed I would have been towed to the tune of around $385. The according to the HPD parking offiers, booting saved me $360.
I am still upset at myself but I'm also grateful I didn't have to pay the tow fee!!

Joe R. Martin said...

I find it very interesting that the author of this blog, and the people posting negative follow-ups, have never attempted to contact me to hear “the other side of the story”. I'm not hard to find if one cared to try (references below) . I guess it is much easier to just sling mud than to do research. The facts of my appointment to the Parking Commission, the reason it was started to begin with, why I was instrumental in writing the “booting” ordinance and why I thought of and started a company subsequent to the passing of this ordinance are mostly of public record and/or have been vetted by City Council, City of Houston Ethics Commission, award winning KPRC investigative reporter Stephen Dean and Texas Watchdog. Bottom line: We have booted over 10,000 cars for non payment/under payment of parking fees and/or citations and to date have only received two citations from the Houston Police Department: one for an employee out of uniform and another for placing a decal on the wrong side of the vehicle. As they say, “facts are stubborn things”. Some people invent their own.

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Martin,
I find it interesting that, while implying that I have my facts wrong, you don't point out a single erroneous fact.

If I have something wrong, I will be happy to acknowledge my error.

Brian Phillips