Supporters of the “tea party” protests were pleased Monday after Wichita Police decided to dismiss about 45 tickets issued to demonstrators who parked in a permit-only lot during an April 15 tax-day rally near City Hall.
The city government also has decided to ease restrictions on the parking lot — which is next door to City Hall — so residents can use it for activities after 5 p.m. and on weekends and holidays.
Lynda Tyler of Kansans for Liberty, who organized the tax-day protest and several other tea-party events in the past year, said it’s an example of what citizens can do when they get involved and make their voices heard.
“It’s kind of an interesting example of the tea party movement,” Tyler said. “Americans just want to be treated equally and fairly.”
Police Chief Norman Williams said he and Capt. Troy Livingston reviewed the situation and concluded that in the past, some people had been allowed to use the parking lot after City Hall business hours.
“We wanted to try to do the right thing to be consistent,” Williams said.
Tyler said a number of tea party supporters complained to city officials after a story in The Eagle last week reported that police wrote at least 71 parking tickets in the vicinity of the tax-day demonstration.
That total included 45 tickets written in the parking lot at the Rounds & Porter building, an old city-owned warehouse that police use for evidence storage.
Signs at the entrances to the lot designate it for permit parking only. It is heavily used by City Hall employees during the day, but empties quickly after 5 p.m.
Sedgwick County Democratic Party Chairman Kelly Johnston, an opponent of the largely conservative and Republican tea party movement, had a mixed reaction to the tickets being rescinded.
“I thought (City Council member Sue) Schlapp put it pretty well, a no-parking rule is a no-parking rule,” he said.
However, he added that he trusts the police chief to make a judgment call on whether there was a deficiency in enforcement that would justify voiding the tickets.
Police said they will work with the Municipal Court to ensure that demonstrators who parked at the Rounds & Porter lot for the tea party will have their tickets dismissed. Those who have already paid will get a refund by mail in 7-14 days, Livingston said.
State Sen. and congressional candidate Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, attended the tea party and was among those who received a $35 ticket for parking at the Rounds & Porter building.
“I’ve paid my ticket and moved on,” she said of her own fine.
But Schodorf said she had considered filing a bill in the Senate, seeking to make it easier for ordinary citizens to use empty publicly owned parking lots after hours.
“It’s good we don’t need to do that,” she said.
She said rescinding the tickets “shows that government is willing to work with the people.”
City Council member Jeff Longwell, who attended the tea party and checked out the parking ticket complaints that evening, worked with City Manager Bob Layton to change the rules at the Rounds & Porter lot.
He said the manager agreed that there was little reason to reserve the lot for employees 24 hours a day. “We’re not really using that at night,” Longwell said.
Livingston said two ambassadors — the city’s name for its parking enforcement officers — were dispatched to the tea party to check for violations that could endanger public safety, such as parking too close to intersections or blocking driveways and crosswalks.
Police were especially concerned because organizers had estimated as many as 2,000 demonstrators might show up. About 850 signed in at the event, Tyler said.
The ambassadors ticketed the cars in the Rounds & Porter lot after receiving complaints from city employees that the protesters were parking there. They warned away about 30 drivers who were in the process of parking at the lot, Livingston said.
All the tickets were written after 5 p.m. and the department’s review found “no public safety concerns or issue that existed in that particular parking lot,” Livingston said.
He also gave the department’s answer to allegations that the city has ramped up parking enforcement to generate more revenue.
Livingston said Wichita doesn’t make money on parking tickets after factoring in salaries and processing costs.
“People get upset if we write tickets,” he said. “People get upset if we don’t write tickets. So we’re in a difficult position.”