A two hour hearing Tuesday by the Council’s License and Public Safety Committees on alleged widespread illegal car seizures by Lincoln Towing was short on substance. There were no official plans introduced to address towing issues, but the meeting was long on grievances as residents testified about their own personal horror stories of dealing with the operator.
At one point, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47), who had called for the hearing following numerous complaints about alleged towing by the company, got into a heated exchange with Lincoln Towing’s attorney, Allen Perl, who accused the aldermen of citing unsubstantiated statistics and dodging his phone calls ahead of yesterday’s meeting.
Present: Chair Ariel Reboyras (30), Gregory Mitchell (7), Ed Burke (14), David Moore (17), Matt O’Shea (19), Willie Cochran (20), Chris Taliaferro (29), Scott Waguespack (32), Deb Mell (33), Anthony Napolitano (41), Michele Smith (43), Tom Tunney (44), John Arena (45), Ameya Pawar (47), Harry Osterman (48).
The company’s infamy in Chicago is so ingrained in popular culture and the city’s history, that Ald. Ed Burke (14), the longest serving alderman on the Council, noted that yesterday’s meeting “seem[ed] like deja vu.”
“You are too young to remember when these were issues here in this building in 1987 and 1988,” Ald. Burke told Ald. Pawar, recalling Mike Royko columns about Lincoln Towing when the company was owned by Ross Cascio. Burke then proceeded to recite the chorus of Steve Goodman’s song, “The Lincoln Park Pirates.”
Perl refused to name the company’s new owner in testimony, but said that he has represented the towing company for the past 20 years. He then claimed that during his tenure as attorney he has never received a phone call complaining about illegal tows. He also took issue with the recitation of Goodman’s song. “When the song was written in the 70’s, [the company’s current owner] was about ten years old. I know that we consistently hear that song about Lincoln Towing, I don’t know what relevance it has today unless you want to indict someone from the 1970s.”
Perl was the last person to testify and spent a significant portion of his time arguing that none of the testimony preceding him was factual. “Everyone in this room so far–and it’s really the vocal minority that’s indicting Lincoln Towing–no one really has the numbers,” Perl argued. He said that there are only about 90 complaints against his client currently pending with the Illinois State Commerce Commission, not the 3,891 cited in previous testimony. Given that Lincoln Towing tows an average of 20,000 cars a year, Perl said, that number works out to be four-tenths of one-percent. “And most complaints have nothing to do with the tow,” he added.
Perl went on to say that he made numerous attempts to speak to Ald. Pawar ahead of yesterday’s hearing, but never got a call back. Lincoln Towing is based in Pawar’s ward. Perl said he later learned from a reporter that Pawar had no plans to call him back.
“Meeting with you prior to this hearing didn’t make sense to me,” Pawar responded, saying that he had no interest in making any “back room deals” because he wanted Perl to show up at the hearing. Pawar said he would only meet with Perl and his client if they agreed to sit down and and provide data and documentation of past tows. “Until that happens, I’m not going to sit in some back room with you prior to a hearing over 40 years of issues.”
The City Council’s Licence and Public Safety Committees scheduled the joint meeting at the request of Public Safety Chairman Ariel Reboyras (30) and Ald. Pawar (47), both of whom filed a resolution calling for a hearing on how the city could enforce or draft new regulations to rein in what they described as “a pattern of illegal towing and abuse of customers by Lincoln Towing.”
“It’s about not just the people who are towed, it’s about the amount of man hours the police department spends on complaints related to towing companies,” said Ald. Pawar, who noted that his local police district spent nearly 600 hours addressing phone calls about people’s cars allegedly getting towed.
There was some talk about potentially drafting up a “bill of rights” to protect vehicle owners, determining ways the city could enforce laws already on the books, and the possibility of improving regulations regarding another headache for car owners: booting. At multiple times during the hearing, Ald. Pawar called on representatives of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) to audit Lincoln Towing and release their findings to aldermen. Due to an ongoing investigation into the company, the Illinois Commerce Commission declined an invitation from Chair Reboyras to testify.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20) reminded fellow aldermen that last year he moved through Council an ordinance requiring private tow companies to document every car towed by taking pictures of their warning signs posted in parking lots, the car towed, and the address where the car was parked. “I am being told that that isn’t being followed, it is not being conformed to. So every tow that has been towed by these companies are in violation of the law, and so they should be fined for that,” Cochran argued.
Most of yesterday’s meeting was more of an opportunity for residents to air their grievances, and for other tow operators to distance themselves from Lincoln Towing.
William Rankin, a building owner from the city’s North Side who told a story about his neighbors’ cars getting towed in his lot without his consent, turned around to Ald. Burke to say, “And we can pass all the damn ordinances we want, and Lincoln Towing is going to ignore them because that has been their record for how many years Ald. Burke? How many years have they ignored anything that you passed? They don’t give a damn about anything that you passed.”
Ed Forsythe, President of the Professional Towing and Recovering Operators of Illinois, an association that represents the business and legislative interests of several towing operators across the state, agreed. “You can pass any law you want and a bad guy is not going to pay attention. He may get locked up in the end, but he’s not going to pay attention.”
Forsythe said the Illinois Commerce Commission is the only regulatory body with teeth to enforce punishment for allegations of widespread towing. When he was asked by Chairman Reboyras if he thought that Lincoln Towing made the rest of the association look bad, Forsythe said yes.
“Absolutely, but there is nothing we can do until a ruling is given,” Forsythe said, adding that the association is in a “pickle” because they can’t remove Lincoln Towing from their organization without just cause.