Two Anchorage Assembly members are resurrecting an effort to crack down on city towing companies -- an industry that Assemblyman Dick Traini characterizes as "open hunting."
Traini and Assemblyman Paul Honeman are drafting a new ordinance that's intended to make towing more "humane" for drivers, Traini said, following failed efforts to do the same thing in 2008 and 2011. They want to set limits on towing companies' charges, toughen enforcement of towing laws, and make it easier for people whose cars are improperly towed to get their fees reduced or cut.
Assembly members have long recognized the need for a fix to the city's towing laws, which they say are inadequate to protect against unscrupulous companies that do "nonconsensual towing" of cars parked illegally on private property. Cith officials say that some companies demand payment in cash; others have been known to charge as much as $450 for a weekend impound, plus added fees to release a car after hours. One even charged extra if you swore at them.
The city ombudsman's office gets upwards of 100 calls each year from people who have had their cars towed -- many of whom complain about how costly it is to get them back.
"Nonconsensual tows are a problem in this town," Traini said. "It's harvest time -- let's see how many cars we can take."
There are currently 12 licensed tow operators on file with the municipal clerk's office -- five of which tow from private property.
Some of the companies are fair, and "follow the code to a T," said Darrel Hess, the city ombudsman.
They also do important work, said Glen Bailey, who owns Alaska Towing and Wrecking, which patrols the lot at City Hall. He charges $150 for a nonconsensual tow, which he said was simply providing a service for a private property owner.
"If there wasn't towing companies, there would be a lot of problems," Bailey said in an interview.
Bailey did, however, acknowledge that there may not be any industry with a "badder rap" than his. That reputation stems from companies that charge higher fees, or don't follow rules about posting signs on the property they tow from, he said.
The new ordinance will set a $235 cap for nonconsensual towing, which could move up with inflation, according to Traini and Honeman.
It would also allow drivers to contest the fees in an administrative hearing, Traini said. That's easier than taking a towing company to small claims court, he added, which is the only legal recourse that exists now.
The new ordinance is being drafted and will be released in about two weeks, Traini said. He and Honeman haven't yet consulted with industry representatives, but they'll be able to give recommendations when the new measure comes before the Assembly, Traini said.
"We're more than happy to talk to them," he said.
Bailey said that a rewrite of the city code wouldn't work unless it came with more enforcement -- and he was frustrated to hear that his only opportunity to weigh in would come when the measure comes before the Assembly.
He said that the city doesn't do a good job policing the laws that are in place now, like those requiring signs to be a certain size, and for official municipal stickers to be placed on tow trucks.
"There's no enforcement on who can do impounding and how they do impounding, and that's the main problem," Bailey said.
Traini said that the new ordinance would toughen enforcement, but didn't specify how.
Hess, the ombudsman, said that despite the high number of complaints his office receives, it doesn't have the authority to respond to the vast majority of them.
He said that once a new set of rules is put in place, he'd like to print cards for drivers that inform them of their towing rights.
For example, Hess said, many people don't know that they can demand that a tow-truck driver show a written authorization from owner of the property they're towing from.
The latest effort is not the first to try to update the city's towing laws, first put in place in 1983. Similar efforts arose in 2008 and 2011, with both Traini's and Honeman's involvement, but neither materialized.
Honeman said that the most recent failure was because of a "miscommunication" between Assembly members and city officials, who he said were at the time working on broader changes to traffic laws.
Traini said that this time will be different.
"When have you ever seen me let loose of something?" he said. "When I decide I want to do it, it will be done. We just have to make sure that it works for everybody."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
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By NATHANIEL HERZ