In April 2010, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to protect motorists from aggressive tow-truck drivers.
Council members had heard one too many stories about price gouging by towers, or vehicles being snatched in "spiderweb" lots, those with lurking tow-truck drivers and confusing parking rules.
Although some of the practices already violated city ordinances, the city had no way to enforce its rules. So council established a business license for towing operators, and a new set of rules for towing vehicles improperly parked in restricted lots.
The licensing requirement was signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl within a week.
Nearly three years later, however, the licenses have not been issued.
That has left drivers like Elliot Gerard with little recourse when they have complaints about towing companies.
Gerard, of Monroeville, parked in a private lot designated for medical offices at Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill last spring. According to his wife, Alicia Gerard, as her husband took their infant son from the car seat to stop at a nearby Starbucks, he locked eyes with the driver of a Travis Towing truck parked a few spots away.
When he returned minutes later, his Nissan Rogue was chained to the truck's ramp.
According to Alicia Gerard, the tow-truck driver told Gerard that to get his car back, he'd need to produce $110 in cash on the spot — or pay $150 at the impound lot.
Such an additional charge would violate the city code, which sets the maximum cost at $110, and does not allow extra charges or storage fees for the first 12 hours.
Gerard asked the driver to let him take his son's safety seat and diaper bag from the car because he didn't have the cash to pay, Alicia Gerard says, but the driver refused.
Ultimately, the driver told Gerard he could pay $115 by credit card, which he did, and his car was not towed. (In 2000, the city code was amended to make towing companies accept credit cards as well as cash.)
"Elliot was at fault because he didn't see the sign, but the tow-truck driver's actions were mischievous and calculating," Alicia Gerard says.
Mark Travis, owner of Travis Towing, says the situation unfolded differently, but he would not elaborate.
"It's just very popular to demonize us," he says of the towing industry. "It's an accepted form of bullying."
Complaints about towing companies piled up in 2010, after then-City Councilor Doug Shields called for city residents to share problems.
Among the complaints Shields received: A tow-truck driver took a woman to an ATM to withdraw $300 so her vehicle wouldn't be taken to the impound lot. A family told of coming to town for a Pirates game and returning to an empty parking space, with no signs in the lot telling them who to call about retrieving it.
Pittsburgh resident Gary Van Horn complained at the time that a tow-truck driver tried to charge him $900 for towing and storing his car after he had an accident and asked that his car be towed to a specific auto-body shop. Van Horn filed a police report and the amount was reduced to $200.
"This was purely aggressive towing," Van Horn tells PublicSource. It was "taking advantage of the situation."
Each towing business was following its own set of rules, says Shields, who represented District 5 until 2011. So he wrote the 2010 ordinance in an attempt to use business licenses to make the rules uniform and the companies accountable.
The bill was to regulate operators who tow cars that have been parked in a restricted area, not those who tow a vehicle at the owner's request after an accident.
"The business license was a commonsense response to citizens being preyed upon by unscrupulous operators," Shields says. The city issues other professional licenses, including those for electricians, general contractors and pawnbrokers.
Getting a license would require tow-truck drivers to provide their driver's licenses and business owners to provide proof of insurance, tax identification and access to company business records. The records would show whether they were adhering to the maximum towing charges and accepting credit cards as well as cash.
The 2010 law gave the enforcement job to the Department of Public Safety. The licenses were to cost $100, and $50 to renew annually.
The ordinance said that before a car could be removed from a private or restricted lot, towers would need a signed and time-stamped request from property owners, and that there must be signs in the lot warning of the tow risk.
In addition, tow-truck drivers could not tow a vehicle if the owner showed up before it was connected to the truck. If the motorist was too late, the tow companies would have to notify police of the towed vehicle's location through an online program run by the Department of Public Safety.
An unenforceable rule?
Council unanimously passed the bill in April 2010 and Ravenstahl signed it. But Shields says the mayor's staff soon after told him it was not a priority.
Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven says Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said the law was "unenforceable."
Chief Harper did not respond to numerous requests in the past two months for comment on why he thought the ordinance was unenforceable. Bureau of Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said Harper had a booked schedule for much of November, was on vacation in December and recently was off because his mother died. Doven says neither the mayor nor Public Safety Director Michael Huss would be available for comment.
Protecting "citizens from aggressive tow companies ... is certainly important," Doven wrote in an email. "However, the ordinance was written by a politician without any input from the officials who would be responsible for implementing and enforcing the ordinance."
Doven said she did not know which parts of the ordinance Harper thought were unenforceable. While she said a police representative would contact PublicSource, none had done so by deadline.
The mayor's office voiced few public misgivings about the measure during council's initial deliberations. At a March 2010 council meeting, Shields said he had sent the ordinance to the mayor's policy director and had not heard back.
"I assume they are fine with it," he said.
During an April council meeting the same year, Assistant City Solicitor Jason Zollett said that the Law Department's initial concerns about the bill had been assuaged because of amendments Shields was adopting.
"I'm perfectly content with the way it reads at this point," Zollett said.
Resolving towing disputes, Shields said, was going to take "some focus on the part of the police department, and Chief Harper has assured me that that's going to happen." And when Harper came to council's table shortly afterward to answer questions, he raised no concerns about the bill.
At several other council meetings, the dates to implement the ordinance were changed to give the city more time, but Shields said the administration was committed to having the system in place by early 2011.
All the measures passed the council unanimously and were signed by the mayor.
Doven told PublicSource that Ravenstahl signed the original measure because he supported the idea behind the legislation. Thinking it would be revised later, she wrote, Ravenstahl "followed the will of council."
Doven says Councilor Bill Peduto offered to rework the ordinance and that Harper had been awaiting his proposed revisions.
However, Peduto, who is challenging Ravenstahl in this year's mayoral race, says the conversation ended when he asked Harper and Huss in March 2012 for specific problems with the bill and was not given an answer.
"I'm not going to go through the foolish exercise of introducing and passing a bill and then see the administration not do it again," he says.
Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs council's Public Safety committee, did not return calls for comment.
Nick Milanovich, manager at J.E. Stuckert Inc., says the Uptown-based towing company supported the business license.
"It would protect everybody," he says. "And it would make sure that everyone is on the same page with insurance and liabilities."
Joe Stickles, owner of Stickles Towing in Greenfield, says he supports a business license because it would help push out "fly-by-night" businesses that employ drivers without driver's licenses or proper insurance.
Having the law on the books, but not enacted, has created confusion for the industry, both men say.
Stickles says several vehicle-owners have questioned his drivers about whether they have a business license.
"We have to explain to them ... that it hasn't been implemented," Stickles says. "I tell them to call their local representative to ask about the situation."
Had the law been implemented back when Elliot Gerard dashed into Starbucks, for example, the tow-truck driver would have needed a request from the lot owner to remove the SUV. The Monroeville family also would have had a channel to complain about the towing company, and the city could review its practices.
Instead, the Gerards say they filed a police report, which they say went nowhere.
City officials "put this law on the backburner because it wasn't important to them, but it was important to us and I'm sure it was important to a lot of others," says Alicia Gerard.
Peduto says his office receives calls by residents outraged by how they've been treated by towing companies.
"There really isn't a way to prevent it at this point," he says. "The idea of the ordinance was to get to the root cause. Without it, there's no mechanism in place to go after those operating illegally."
PublicSource, a nonprofit investigative news group in Pittsburgh, is a news partner of City Paper. Learn more at PublicSource.org.