In the four years that Jane Fitzjerrell has been parking her vans in village-owned lots, vandals have drilled the gas tank and stolen the fuel. She has been ticketed for parking in the wrong direction. But she said nothing compared to the feeling on July 16, when she realized the village ticketed and towed her vans — which she uses to drive ex-offenders and recovering addicts to church — without her knowledge.
“When you have a service from the village, you’re trusting they’re looking out for your best interest. You live here, pay taxes. This just feels very mean and wrong, disproportionate,” Fitzjerrell said.
“I think they should look at the [parking] program and spirit of how they’re treating the residents and look into their soul or look at their hearts. They live here, we live here, we voted for them. Why are they treating us this way? Why are they making it harder for us to park and live here?”
Fitzjerrell is the program development coordinator at the Forest Park-based Mission USA, a nonprofit Christian ministry with the goal of helping ex-offenders and addicts find jobs, homes and churches. As part of their work, they started “The Bridge,” an initiative where they pick up some 50 individuals from group homes every Tuesday and transport them to churches in Chicago, where they hear sermons from a rotating cast of pastors and enjoy a home-cooked meal. She said she pays $370 for two, 24-hour parking passes for the vans each quarter, which allows her to park in any village-owned lot.
Every year, the village’s Public Works Department needs to clean the lots and repaint the lines in the parking stalls. This year, they scheduled re-striping the lot at Marengo Avenue and Roosevelt Road for July 15.
John Doss, head of Public Works, said they posted sandwich-board signs advertising that cars needed to be moved from the lot eight days in advance of cleaning, a day ahead of when they are required to post the signs.
“I don’t wish being towed on anybody,” Doss said, adding that the village uses the same process for alerting vehicle owners in all the village lots and “it does seem to work.” Most people don’t get ticketed and towed, he said.
But Fitzjerrell said neither she nor her employee saw the signs.
“Why couldn’t they put a flier in my windshield, or email me, or call me?” she said. When she applied for the 24-hour parking passes, she listed her name, physical address and phone number on the permit application. She said each van also had three magnetic signs posted on it with Mission USA’s phone number, website and a cross.
“I live four blocks away, I could’ve walked over and moved it, but that wasn’t their interest,” Fitzjerrell said. “I perceive their interest is not for me to get help to move it; their interest is to make money off the tow and ticket.”
The village ticketed the vans and Nobs Towing transported them to the lot at 1510 Hannah Ave.
At first, Fitzjerrell said, Nobs told her it would cost $360 to retrieve each van. But when they found out the vans were part of a nonprofit, they dropped the price to $200 for each vehicle, saying, “Most of that was the city’s cut” and that he had done this to 40 people in Forest Park. Each also had a $40 village ticket on them.
“It’s like salt on the wound,” she said.
Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said that, from July 15 to 17, 29 total vehicles were towed in the village. He said the parking enforcement officer does not remember seeing a phone number on the side of Fitzjerrell’s vehicle, and staff usually do not look up phone numbers listed on parking permit applications since “that gets to be time consuming.”
“Generally, they attempt to get a phone number by running the license plate and checking to see if we have a contact in our computer system,” Aftanas said via email.
In this instance, the registered owner of Mission USA’s vans was not called because it was registered to a church, and the desk clerk could not find a phone number, he said.
“I think part of the problem in this case is there are three separate vehicles and all register to a different address as well,” Aftanas said.
Fitzjerrell doesn’t plan to dispute the tickets because she doesn’t think it will do any good. She said she will have to use nonprofit funds to pay off the ticket and towing fees, instead of using the money to “put gas in the tank of vans to pick up people, programs, meals, food, serve them.”
But she believes the village should void all the tickets issued that day “as a good faith effort … at least acknowledge the way they’re treating us is not fair, overly abusive, overkill and heavy-handed.” She also said the village should give better notice to vehicles before they are towed, offer nonprofits discounted parking and eliminate any “cut” it receives from the tow fee. If the village needs the proceeds it gets when cars are towed to cover its contract with Nobs Towing, “I would say negotiate a new contract because that seems like a really high price. I would say you’ve got problems with your vendor negotiations department.”
Commissioner Jessica Voogd, who is in charge of public property, said she saw Public Works’ signs advertising the cleaning “prominently displayed” at the lots.
“I think it’s always good to occasionally revisit code and look at it and make sure things are working well. To me, it doesn’t sound like this is something highlighting a big issue; it kind of sounds like everything was handled appropriately,” Voogd said, adding that tickets can be contested by mail or in-person, and the village offers payment plans for those who cannot pay their tickets by the due date. She called these “effective options.”
“I absolutely feel for anybody who gets a ticket; we don’t like to give them,” Voogd said. “But we have certain rules put in place for a reason, and it seems like folks in the village did their due diligence.”
As for the practice of ticketing vehicle owners on top of the towing fee, Voogd said the village does have to pay the towing agency to come out and move and store the car, and that does “have to be monetized to some degree.” She was unsure how much the village makes off cars that are towed.
In the meantime, Fitzjerrell said, she is searching for a new place to park her vans.
“I can’t find those other 39 people towed because I don’t know who they are, but I want them to know their stories are being heard and I’m fighting for their justice,” Fitzjerrell said.