On Wednesday August 8, 2012 the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee (JLAC) of California will consider whether to direct the State Bureau of Audits to look into Escondido's suspect towing and impound programs. California State Senator Christine Kehoe submitted the request to JLAC after an initial investigation I conducted in partnership with The Nation Institute as well as a report issued by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties entitled,Wrong Turn, Escondido's Checkpoint and Impound Practices Examined. Escondido is 50% Latino and many in that community believe the undocumented immigrant population is the prime target for towing and impounding vehicles.
The reports as well as testimony from immigrant rights advocates and the general public point to a serious problem with the way the city of Escondido manages impound fees and tow company contract fees. It appears that the tow and impound programs in Escondido are profit oriented which violates state law. California vehicle codes allow the city of Escondido to be reimbursed for expenses incurred for towing and impounding cars. When Escondido was recently asked to produce documents to justify the fees charged to the public and to tow contractors, the city could not produce them.
In March 2012, the Chief of Police of Escondido, Jim Maher was asked during a television interview on KPBS in San Diego whether he would be willing to open his books to the public, he responded, “We don't have books.” In affect, what Chief Maher is admitting is that he is asking the public to pay for police department expenses without producing any receipts.
In a meeting with Escondido city officials in April 2012, members of the ACLU and I asked for documents to justify fees charged to the public for impounding vehicles. This meeting was called by Escondido after we separately requested such documents but were never provided them. At the meeting I asked Deputy City Attorney Gary McCarthy for documents pertaining to fees charged to impound a vehicle. In 1998, the fee to get a car out of impound was $45. A few years later, the fee skyrocketed to $180. I asked, “What made the fee go from $45 to $180?” “We have no records from 1998,” said McCarthy. Remember, Escondido can only charge what it costs them to impound a vehicle. If they were going to raise fees by 400%, there should be a justification.
Private tow companies in Escondido pay a contract fee in order to do business in the city. State law also regulates these fees and only allows a city to be reimbursed for what it costs them to run a tow program. By law, they cannot use tow contract fees for profit. In 2004 tow contractors in Escondido paid a total of $85,000 in contract fees. The latest contract has tow companies now paying a whopping $450,000 — a 500% increase in the span of seven years. When Police Services Bureau Manager Representative Susan Cervenka was asked for the documents to justify such a fee hike she said, “A lot of time those things are done in discussion... it's not always done on a spreadsheet.” That statement appears to be an admission of malfeasance. How does one get reimbursed for expenses if the expense report is never generated but is only “discussed?” After repeated requests for documents to justify reimbursable costs, the City of Escondido could not produce them and admitted they did not have them.
On Aug. 8 the JLAC will make its' recommendation whether the City of Escondido merits an audit or not. In addition to the ACLU; El Grupo, the NAACP of North San Diego County, the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, The National Latino Peace Officers Association of San Diego County as well as many concerned residents have urged the audit committee to open Escondido's books that according to the Chief of Police and City Attorney are blank or don't exist. Isn't that reason enough to go looking?
This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.