This car parked in downtown Chula Vista was ticketed by an Ace employee.
Duy Nguyen stared at the parking ticket that had been placed under his windshield wiper. Something didn’t seem right about it. The $37.50 ticket (for parking at an expired meter) listed a post office box number in Inglewood, California. The officer’s identification number was 12345. The citation was from “Ace Parking — Chula Vista Parking Enforcement Center.”
“I thought it was a scam at first,” says Nguyen in a January 11 email. “I called the Chula Vista Police Department, and the officer that I talked to said that the ticket was legitimate, and that the registration could be withheld by the DMV if I didn’t pay. I asked about the legality of the ticket and got an annoyed response from the officer.”
Nguyen now wonders if he should even pay the ticket. “A lawyer friend of mine said that there probably wouldn’t be any repercussions if I don’t pay it, since the payment would go to Ace Parking, not the city.”
But the ticket wasn’t a scam, at least not within Chula Vista city limits. Since 2009, the city has contracted with Ace Parking “to provide enforcement and maintenance in the City of Chula Vista Downtown Parking District,” says a city spokesperson.
“Parking enforcement,” reads the window at Ace Parking’s downtown Chula Vista storefront. But can a private company enforce laws?
According to their agreement, Ace employees are responsible for enforcing the following violations: “non-payment of parking meters, parking at an expired meter, improper parking in a parking stall, backing into a stall, and parking over the time limit (for signed parking).”
To do so, the company employs one full-time enforcement officer, one part-time collections and maintenance person, and a supervisor. All are based in a storefront on Third Avenue, where appeals and payments can be made.
Ace Parking is no stranger to government contracts. The San Diego–based parking outfit manages 450 public and private parking applications in nine states and employs more than 4500 people.
The company’s owner is Scott Jones, who took over the business from his father, Evan Jones. Scott’s son, Keith Burnham Jones, is the company’s top executive. During their 70 years in business, the Jones family has been awarded multimillion-dollar contracts from public agencies throughout San Diego County.
A few of the current contracts include: five contracts with the County of San Diego for $1,613,580, four contracts with the City of San Diego worth $7.6 million, and the mother of all public parking-lot agreements; Ace’s $58.5 million contract to manage parking and shuttle services at Lindbergh Field. That contract was awarded against the wishes of airport staff.
Ace’s presence at public parking lots, influence with local politicians, and its parking-enforcement activities have raised some concerns about privatization of governmental duties. “It feels wrong to get the ticket,” says Nguyen, “because I don’t like the idea of private companies handing out citations like they’re public authorities. I don’t think most people would.”
The debate over privatization isn’t the only issue. Program revenues have fallen short of initial projections. In its original proposal to the city, Ace estimated that by the third year of the contract the city would collect $623,745 in total revenue; in fiscal year 2012, the company fell $46,969 short of projections.
From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, Ace Parking collected $237,205 worth of parking citations, around $24,000 short.
Expenditures were also higher than expected. Last fiscal year, the city paid Ace $195,000 a year to run the parking operation in downtown; that amount is more than $61,000 higher than what the company promised.
Total revenues have come in $158,588 short of what was promised back in 2008.
Currently, state law prohibits private agencies to be responsible for law enforcement. In December of 2011, California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, issued a statement on public agencies entering into contract with private companies for parking enforcement. The state’s top attorney reaffirmed a 2002 court opinion that outlawed the practice for general law cities.
“No specific authority,” Harris wrote, “has been given to cities to have the employees of private companies issue parking citations.” She added, “We conclude that a general law city may not enter into a contract with a private security company authorizing the company’s employees to issue citations for Vehicle Code parking violations.”
But Chula Vista, like San Diego, is not a general law city. It’s a charter city responsible for drafting its own laws. In October 2009, Chula Vista did just that when it amended the municipal code to allow the arrangement.
“When the City Council approved the Ace contract in 2009, the City Attorney’s office advised them that while the law in this area was not clear, an argument could be made that because the City was a charter city, and it was enforcing its own municipal code, the city could lawfully contract with a third party vendor to issue parking citations,” reads a statement from city attorney Glenn Googins. “Chula Vista Municipal Code was modified at that time to expressly provide for this type of arrangement.”
The pertinent section of the code states: “The City Council may contract with the governing body of a city or county within this state, or with a state department or other public or private agency for the preparation or conducting of examinations for positions in the City service or for the performance of any other personnel administration service.”
To the concern that laws are being enforced by private employees, not sworn officers, a city spokesperson responds that all parking officers are fully vetted before being hired. “All Ace employees are required to go through both Ace’s background checks and an extensive city background check through our Police Department.”
That doesn’t comfort opponents such as Nguyen, who contends, “We have police officers for a reason. I realize that cities are strapped for cash right now, but privatizing law enforcement seems like a stupid idea.”
Representatives from Ace Parking declined to comment for this story. ■