Taken for a ride


by Diane Moca

MILWAUKEE -- Owners who try to sell their car by putting a sign in it and parking it on a city street may end up with more than they bargained for.

"I'm trying to help my mother here, and I end up with all of this crap," cried Ruth Sundby as she described her anxiety over facing an expensive roadblock while simply trying to sell her mother's car after moving her mom to a nursing home. "I'm paying for it out of my pocket, and I'm unemployed."

Sundby says she drove her mother's Chevy Cobalt down to Milwaukee and parked it legally on Washington Boulevard about 11 a.m. on a Friday.

She says when she returned to move it to her garage about seven hours later, it was gone.

"I felt when it happened, no good deed goes unpunished," lamented Sundby.

She says police told her it was stolen but changed their mind when she tried to file a report the next day.

"He checked it again and informed us it was at a tow lot" because it had a For Sale sign in the window.

"I was shocked over the idea it was stolen, but I was more shocked it would be towed for that reason," declared Sundby.

She says by the time she found out what really happened, the tow lot was closed. So the wrong information cost storage fees of $20 for Friday, $20 for Saturday and $20 for Sunday.

When she realized she also owed a $105 tow charge and a $33 ticket, and she had to spend an extra day getting a notarized power of attorney and a letter from her mom's nursing home, she really blew a gasket.

"I was thinking, You gotta be kidding! I'm trying to sell my 93-year-old mother's car 'cause she needs the money to pay for assisted living," Sundby explained.

Sundby said the fees revved her up to contact her alderman and fight against city hall.

Sundby said she knew nothing about the city law requiring owners to display a $40 permit in any vehcle with a For Sale sign parked on a public street or lot.

"Every person I talked to about this knows nothing about this," she revealed.

Becky Burton and Sue Robinson know about it because they say they were just as appalled when their car was towed while it was parked legally with a For Sale sign in front of their own house.

"It just really bothered me that they towed my vehicle without any warning," said Robinson.

"We had never heard of anything like that before," added Burton.

So they say they fought the ticket in court, and the city backed down.

"They zeroed the ticket and refunded all the towing fees. I think the reason they did that is because they can't defend the constitutionality," explained Burton, who posted a web page describing her ordeal and giving advice to others fighting the same ticket.

A popular blog about Used Cars on About.com called Milwaukee's ordinance "stupid."

Alderman Bob Donovan says he introduced the ordinance because he was getting "a lot" of complaints about cars for sale taking up valuable parking spaces.

"My concern was, Are our streets going to be used car lots or what?" wondered Alderman Donovan.

He said the permit required proof of ownership as a way to cut down on thieves using the streets to sell stolen vehicles.

"Which is crazy," noted Burton. "Who steals a car and parks it in front of their house with a For Sale sign on it?"

Alderman Donovan pushed to make the pilot program permanent in 2009.

"I wanted it in my district. Other alderman wanted it citywide," explained Donovan.

"I thought it was fairly extreme," described Alderman Michael Murphy, who says he was one of four council members opposing the expansion of the rules to the rest of the city.

"I think Channel 58 is doing a service letting people know about it, because I think a vast majority of people are probably unaware of it," added Alderman Murphy.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) said last year, 101 vehicle sales permits were issued but 283 cars were towed for not having the permit. DPW said it has no way of determining "the exact number" of those towed vehicles owned by dealers or stolen.

"It was very successful; it really cut down on the problems," declared Donovan.

But the inconvenience and high cost of a tow create problems for many people.

Donovan said he doesn't think every violator should be towed.

"It never says tow immediately. That's at the discretion of the parking checker," he added.

Sundby said she believes her mother's car may have been targeted because the license plate reveals it is from Kaukauna, and she says out-of-town owners would be less likely to go to court.

Sundby said the city attorney tried to convince her not to fight the charges by offering to drop the $33 ticket. She said she put the brakes on that option when she realized it would eliminate her chance to try to win back the $165 she paid for the tow and storage.

"I think it's a ridiculous ordinance," she insisted.

Sundby said she stopped in the city attorney's office after CBS 58 contacted the city, and she found out the city agreed to drop her $33 ticket and send her a refund check for the $165 she paid for towing and storage.

Alderman Murphy said he met with the Public Safety Committee last month after CBS 58 alerted him to problems with the ordinance. He said the ordinance is being re-written so violators will get a ticket and a warning to move their car within 24 hours before their car will be towed.

If you've got an issue you'd like us to investigate, send an e-mail to dmoca@cbs58.com.


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