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Monday, February 2, 2009

Proposed OR Bill Would Ban "Patrol Towing" Statewide

Here's the AP news story from KVAL.com:

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — State Rep. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, says he will introduce a bill this legislative session banning "patrol towing" contracts, which let towing companies cruise privately owned parking lots and tow vehicles they judge to be improperly parked.

It also would eliminate commissions for drivers based on how many cars they tow in favor of salary or hourly wages and require drivers to contact a property owner or manager before towing a vehicle from private property.

In Oregon towing companies can sign contracts with property owners for the exclusive right to patrol private lots and haul off improperly parked vehicles. Most drivers are paid on commission.

In Portland alone, tow-truck drivers seized 10,864 vehicles from private property last year and collected a minimum of $161 each time, not including storage fees.

A federal appeals court recently upheld the right of state and local governments in nine Western states to regulate towing. The ruling frees Washington state to enforce a ban that had been on the books but under a legal cloud since 1985.

Last month, the city of Fairview, north of Gresham, became the first jurisdiction in Oregon to outlaw patrol towing.

"To me, having drivers work on commission creates a conflict of interest," said Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby. "The person who decides whether to make a tow stands to gain financially if they do it or miss out financially if they don't. I don't see how you can get a good impartial decision that way."

Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson supported the ban, noting that patrol towing sometimes produced dangerous confrontations, including one in which a car owner threatened a tow-truck driver with a shotgun.

Fairview now operates on a complaint-driven system.

Riley says he has heard so many patrol-towing horror stories that he wants a statewide solution.

"If there is a car they want to tow, they wouldn't just be able to hook up and go," said Riley, vice chairman of the House Consumer Protection Committee. "There may be reasons a car is in a place for a few minutes. If the management knows about it, OK."

The bill is being drafted by legislative counsel.

The last session passed bills letting local governments enact ordinances controlling towing practices and designating the attorney general's office to take complaints.

Gary Coe, who owns Portland-based Retriever Towing, said banning commissions for drivers would reduce efficiency.

"What right does the government have to tell me how I pay my people, whether hourly, salary or commission?" asked Coe, whose company has been in business for 33 years. "I pay my salespeople on commission. I pay my managers on commission. And I pay my drivers on commission. It creates an incentive-based system to perform."

Larry McFarland, manager of a company that manages 119 rental units on four properties, agreed.

"We're not a big company," said McFarland. "If we didn't have automatic service, we'd have to patrol the parking lots ourselves -- and that would be a lot of work."

Towing fees are rarely challenged.

But in the past year virtually all of the 75 that were in Portland alone were resolved in favor of the car owner, said Marian Gaylord, the city's tow coordinator. Those who win challenges say their cases illustrate how a bounty system can lead to abuse.

Last April Mike Meier, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, parked in a handicapped-only spot outside a defunct restaurant, his parking permit hanging in the window.

He was towed anyway, by a company with an expired contract.

His story appeared in The Oregonian in September 2008 and was distributed across the Internet, generating multistate rage.

"I got my money back -- $194," said Meier, 43. "But more than that, what it's all about for me is those people who have had their cars incorrectly towed."

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