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Friday, June 16, 2000

Tag, you're late!

Verbal abuse, worn-out excuses,
the wrath of the citizenry—it's just
another day in the life of a meter maid

Bullet First meter maid misses aloha
Bullet By The Numbers

By Jaymes K. Song


A well-groomed, smiling, middle-aged woman in a business suit walks up to her car parked next to an expired parking meter downtown.

"How are you officer?" she asks politely of Keith Masagatani.

But once Masagatani informs the woman that her parking ticket has already been written, her civilized demeanor vanishes. She unleashes a barrage of four-letter words at him. online video
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"They'll throw everything at you," said Masagatani, who has cited thousands of cars in his 15 years as a city Parking Violations Clerk. "You hear every swear word in the book."

Verbal abuse is a daily occurrence for Masagatani and his fellow city parking officers, who are more commonly known as "meter maids."

The "meter maids" title supposedly originated on the mainland. It stuck here when the city hired four women as the first parking officers in 1966. The roles have since reversed -- there are now 14 men and five women doing the job.

"At the beginning it was a little difficult," recalled Russell Chong, a 10-year veteran. "They would come up swearing and cussing, and it's never their fault. It's always our fault or someone else's fault.

"I used to take it personally in the beginning. Now, I've heard everything."

Much-needed revenue

The 19 city parking enforcement officers, a part of the Honolulu Police Department, bring in about $23 million annually, which goes to the state's general fund. That averages out to each officer issuing $1.2 million in tickets.

And that's not including the $4.5 million in quarters, dimes and nickels collected annually from the city's 5,011 parking meters. Officers don't actually count -- or even see -- the coins collected from meters. They unload them from sealed canisters directly into a large metal box. A bank counts the money, which goes toward improving city streets and maintaining parking meters.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Russell Chong and Keith Masagatani, in helmet, are on the
job looking for parking violations in the Mapunapuna area.

Besides bringing in revenue, the enforcement keeps illegally parked cars from being safety hazards to motorists and pedestrians. Constant monitoring also helps parking turnover and allows a greater number of cars to use a limited number of spaces.

Even with an increasing number of cars on Oahu, citations have dropped substantially over the past few years.

City parking enforcement officers issued 67,425 citations last year, a 19 percent decline from the 83,598 citations in 1998. The figures do not include parking tickets issued by police officers. They also do not include the state's collections from its 900 off-street parking meters, patrolled by a group of 10 state workers.

Amy Lau, a Parking Enforcement supervisor, said the drop was caused by the increase of parking fines from $15 to $30 two years ago. And more people are carpooling and using buses than ever before.

But there is still an abundance of people who park illegally or do not feed their meters with enough money.

Contrary to popular belief, officers do not have a "quota" nor do they "target" certain types of cars, officers say.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Keith Masagatani issues a ticket.

"We have enough tags that we don't have to target people," Masagatani said.

On a weekday morning in Mapunapuna, Chong and Masagatani were "tagging" cars as fast as they could write.

On average, each officer writes about 30-50 tickets per shift. The record for one officer is 400 citations in one shift.

The officers say patience and a sense of humor are needed in their line of work.

"Some motorists rip (the ticket) up and throw it up in front of you," said Chong, 38. "But we still have the original.

"A lot of them yell and scream at us. I guess they're taking out their $30 worth out on us," he added. "You can't take it personal. If you take it personal, it will eat you up inside."

Although some officers have quit because of the public's torment, there is little turnover in the "meter maid" business. Most have been there for more than five years.

Officers won't be tricked

Officers say the benefits of the job -- being outdoors, meeting friendly people, not being tied to a desk and never having a "boss" hovering around -- balance the harassment.

City Parking Violation Clerks start out earning about $17,000 as meter collectors. The next step is Parking Violation Officer, who at first cite only meter violations but eventually handle all types of parking violations. An officer is paid about $30,000, plus a 15 percent hazard bonus for driving a three-wheeled Cushman.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Masagatani is cruising Mapunapuna looking for
parking-meter violations.

The officers have witnessed many tactics by people trying to skirt paying the meter.

Some people put a paper bag over the meter or place a coin in the meter, but purposely do not turn the knob. But those tricks do not work, officers said. People still will get cited for improper use of a meter or be cited after a meter is verified to be working properly.

While many violators complain about their tickets and plead either innocence or ignorance, violations are pretty simple to the officers.

"Either you're illegally parked or you're not," Masagatani said.

Chong recalled that when he started the job in 1990, he didn't care too much for the "meter maid" term, "but over the years, I've been called worse."

First meter maid misses aloha

By Jaymes K. Song


NANCY Yamasaki has been a Honolulu meter maid from the very beginning -- 1966, when she was one of the first four women on the job.

She still remembers the jeers and glares she would get patrolling Waikiki on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the 1960s.

Info Box"They would say, 'Go find something more feminine to do -- you're taking away a paycheck that could go to a guy,' " she said.

She became a city "meter maid" after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper. She planned on spending six months en route to an office job. But those six months turned into 18 years as a meter maid, and a career she loved.

"I'm the dinosaur," said Yamasaki, 59, who now heads the city's Parking Enforcement Section. "I never thought I would still be here."

She enjoyed walking through the then-seedy Chinatown, visiting the tattoo parlors and "sleazy bars," and getting to know the "characters."

"It was fascinating," she said. "You see things, you hear things, you're allowed to go places you're not supposed to be." Yet Yamasaki said she always felt safe and that "there was more aloha," during a time when parking tickets were only $2.

"Now, it's damn if you do, damn if you don't," she said. "Nobody's happy about it."

When parking enforcement officers cite vehicles in a certain area, people say their neighborhood is being targeted, she said. But when officers don't come around for awhile, they complain about illegally parked cars.

It seems to Yamasaki that people used to take responsibility and accept their tickets. "Now, it's 'The meter is cheating me,' 'You don't have any aloha,' 'You were waiting for the meter to expire,' 'The clocks are running too fast,' " she said.

One memorable moment was when she was going to cite a car for an expired meter, but ran out of tickets in her book. She went back to the office to get more tickets, ate lunch and returned more than an hour later to find the same car parked in the same spot.

When she wrote the ticket, a man came running out and claiming the meter had "just expired." After she informed him the meter has been expired for at least an hour, he said, "Well, I gotta try."

"That was funny," she said.

Yamasaki uses her years of experience on the street to act as "den mother" to the 19 parking enforcement officers that work for her. She tries to bolster their esteem after a day of being verbally abused by the public.

"You put on the uniform and everybody thinks you're the bad guy," she said. "Take off the uniform, go to the same shop in a T-shirt and they won't recognize you, so you cannot take it personally.

"You have a job to do and you just do the job the best you can."

By The Numbers

Bullet $2: Cost of Honolulu parking ticket in 1966, when parking-enforcement officers were first hired.
Bullet $30: Cost of Honolulu parking ticket in 2000.
Bullet 5: Number of city mechanics who repair parking meters.
Bullet 9: Average public requests per week to verify defective parking meters.
Bullet 65: Percentage of meters found to be working fine after a public complaint.
Bullet 79: Age of the oldest parking-enforcement officer, Wah Sheong Kwock.
Bullet $370: Cost of each new electronic meter installed to replace a mechanical one.
Bullet 400: Record number of citations issued in one day by one officer.
Bullet 5,011: Number of city-operated parking meters in Honolulu.
Bullet 1951: Year that the first parking meters were installed in the state, at the old Honolulu Airport.
Bullet 1966: Year Nancy Yamasaki, still employed by the section, became one of Honolulu's first four meter maids.
Bullet 67,425: Number of citations issued last year by city parking-enforcement officers.
Bullet $23 million: Average annual amount collected from parking violators in Honolulu by city parking-enforcement officers.

Common excuses for parking infractions:

Bullet "My meter just expired."
Bullet "I was just here for a minute."
Bullet "Where else am I going to park?"
Bullet "The meter's broken."
Bullet "I had to use the bathroom."
Bullet "I didn't have any change."
Bullet "You were waiting here for my meter to run out."
Bullet "Get a real job."

Most common violations -- and the costs:

Bullet Expired meter -- $30 if paid within 15 days; $55 after 15 days.
Bullet Parked too close to a driveway -- $30 if paid within 15 days; $55 after 15 days.
Bullet Parked too close to curb -- $30 if paid within 15 days; $55 after 15 days.
Bullet Parking out of marked stall -- $30 if paid within 15 days; $55 after 15 days.
Bullet Parked in freight-loading zone without a permit -- $45 if paid within 15 days; $70 after 15 days.

Source: Honolulu Police, City Parking Enforcement Section

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