Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hell's Parking Enforcement

When I first moved to Madison, I'll admit, I was inherently suspicious of any food that's served out of a shack. The same goes for trailers, carts, wagons, trucks and wheelbarrows.

Maybe it was part of coming into my own as a UW freshman, but I did eventually get adventurous and try some of the food vendors who set up regularly on Library Mall. Ingrid's Mad City Meatloaf converted me from a cautious mobile cuisine dabbler to a shameless promoter and rabid fan of the entire food cart community.

But then again, Ingrid's meatloaf could probably turn Vegans back to carnivorism, if she didn't offer a hefty selection for Madison's lettucehead population as well.

Nonetheless, one of my greatest failures as a UW student may have been neglecting to visit "Jin's Chicken and Fish" shack even ONCE after a night out at the bars. And now, if the City of Madison Vending Oversight Committee has its way, I may have less than a month to do so before it's gone for at least six months.

At a meeting last week, the VOC voted to recommend that Jeff Okafo, the proprietor of Jin's Chicken, be stripped of his vending license for six months. His offense? A stack of parking tickets and a run-in with a Madison Police officer that resulted in Okafo being on the business end of a taser / pepper spray barrage.

When Okafo told me about the taser part this morning at Indie Coffee, I nearly doused the guy in a mouthful of black coffee. I CCAPed him in preparation for our meeting, and I was aware of the Obstructing an Officer charges pending against him for a little kerfuffle from last spring. But the cavalier way he described having chili derivative sprayed in his eyes and upwards of 15,000 volts of electricity coursing through his flesh nearly floored me.

I would not mess with Jeff Okafo, even at bartime. The city of Madison, on the other hand, swings a decidedly heavier hammer than I do.

One can certainly make the argument that Okafo has damned himself in this whole situation. Wracking up 29 parking tickets in a year is of itself a feat worth some note, perhaps even a record of some kind. The alleged fight with a parking enforcement officer in May is even more damning, as are the Operating After Revocation tickets he's earned along the way.

But then again, put in his same situation, I can see myself winding up even worse off. It's not much of a stretch.

Okafo makes his living selling food out of a cart late at night. The city has not granted him permission to set up on Library Mall or State Street, where he would be out of the way when parking push came to parking shove, so he has to battle for spots on the one street they have given him permission to use: Frances Street, where the spots are scarce and metered.

The meters, of course, aren't monitored after six o'clock in the evening, but the spots there are filled up long before then by people hoping themselves to park overnight. In order to be assured a spot, and thus an income for the evening, Okafo needs to get there by the middle of the afternoon... Which means plugging the meters... Which means risking a ticket.

29 tickets in a year still seemed extreme to me, until I realized that I myself have amassed seven or eight tickets in the past year for various parking infractions. As a reporter, I certainly spend more time tooling around in a car downtown than most people, but I certainly don't make my living parking out on the streets like Okafo does. For him, parking tickets are almost just another business expense.

The tickets are of course a hair-tearing inconvenience, but it's when they stack up that they become a major problem. When you amass as many as Okafo has, it's only a matter of time before a few slip through the cracks and remain unpaid. This runs up the amount owed, and eventually suspends your registration with the state.

But when your livelihood depends on driving a cart downtown to set up for the evening, a suspended registration could certainly look insignificant compared to having no income until the troubles are cleared up...that is, until those blueberries and cherries show up in your rearview mirror.

As to Okafo's alleged run-in with the police last May, it's tough to work out what actually happened. He says he came upon a parking enforcement officer writing him a ticket, had some words and the police got called. In what he describes as a complete police overreaction, he ended up down for the count and under arrest.

Okay. Who hasn't gotten a little heated when they discover they've received a visit from Madison's Parking Ninjas? Judging by my overreaction to getting a parking ticket in June, I'll be bound over on attempted homicide charges if I ever catch the actual parking goon in the act, though I'm convinced they're equipped with some kind of stealth technology.

Were the officers' actions appropriate in dealing with the situation as it unfolded? That's a gray area. As anyone who was on State Street during either of the last two so-called "riots" following the Halloween festival will tell you, our department has an affinity for quickly deploying teargas. And if you believe Okafo's account, it sounds like his situation wasn't much different:

"I went to go talk to the police officer to complain about the parking enforcement officer. Meanwhile, the guy is yelling at me to get on the ground and put my hands behind my back. I didn’t want to put my hands behind my back because I didn’t want him to think I had a weapon, so I put my hands over my head. Then he tasers me. I felt the taser, it didn’t take full effect, I grabbed the dart out of me. I’m standing 10-15 feet away from him, he says he’s gonna call another officer. I say that’s a good idea, and he interpreted that as a threat. He made it sound in the report like I was screaming in the middle of the street, which is completely untrue."

(By the way, that previous link is why you don't meet with a source in a coffee shop frequented by student journalists with laptops and nothing better to do on a Tuesday than eavesdrop your interview and scoop you before you can get home from work and do your writing. Get a job, and get off my damn lawn you kids! (...so kidding...) )

I'm not making excuses for Okafo. I have nothing but respect for Mike Verveer, who sits on the Vending Oversight Committee. I have occasionally disagreed with him, but I think he's an admirable leader with sound judgement. And when I broached the topic with Verveer tonight, he assured me the city is within its rights to do what it's doing. He also went to bat for the officers on the scene, saying Okafo "picked a fight."

A friend of mine who's familiar with the case admits, "Jeff has made mistakes and handled himself poorly, but I agree with him that it seems unfair that he may lose his vending license because of this. Parking tickets come with a penalty already."

The city is taking a hardline stance with Jin's chicken, and it could set a dangerous precedent for the other street vendors that make downtown Madison the colorful, vibrant place it is. In a sense, Okafo is being doubly punished: he's taken the steps to pay off most of the parking tickets, and he says he spent over $3,000 to get his license and registration reinstated. He pays a nonrefundable fee to the city for the privilege of vending food on the streets, but they're looking at taking that away from him anyway.

And if a court indeed finds him guilty of obstructing an officer and disorderly conduct, he will pay the associated penalty. But if the city strips him of the livelihood he's made for himself since 1992, what reason does he have to reform, to break out of the funk he's stuck in?

As he told me very plainly, "Nobody else I've ever met's job is threatened by parking tickets."

And don't even get me started on those maniacs down at parking enforcement. How many cities have you heard of where the meter masters literally have the power to drive a man from his livelihood?


George Hesselberg said...

Nicely written. Good job.

Emily said...

Interesting piece. I'm kind of on the fence with this one, but mostly because I don't feel like I have all the facts. Still, I agree that taking away the man's livelihood over parking tickets would be pretty ridiculous.

Is there a reason he can't get permission to vend on State St. or Library Mall (or MLK, for that matter)? I'm curious to know what the process for that is in general, and why he's been stuck on Frances and Langdon for so long.

Adam Young said...

I take exception to your quote:

"But if the city strips him of the livelihood he's made for himself since 1992..."

written near the end of this diatribe of yours against the City of Madison, along with the basic premise of your story.

Madison existed before this guy came to town. To quote the old Tammany Ward Boss George Washington Plunkett, "he saw his opportunities and he took 'em."

Well, Jin took his opportunities and also took parking spaces away from Langdon Street area residents that badly need them. Not bad, if you think you can get away with it.

We don't exist in a vacuum, yet you make it seem that Jin is the David in a classic "You can't fight City Hall" battle against Goliath.

Jin wouldn't have his business if Madison didn't exist, so it is proper for the city to set down rules and regulations when one wants to operate in the city.

If Jin can't play by the rules, maybe he should set up shop some where else where the residents don't mind him taking up a parking space or two. I doubt that will happen when presented the facts.

Parking enforcement exists to give all of us a fair shake at finding a parking spot. If Jin wants something permanent, maybe he should do what most other business people do in Madison and the rest of the Western world: Rent a space.

It's so easy to complain about getting a parking ticket and getting a sympathetic following.
This feeble attempt to generate outrage as if you were Upton Sinclair won't win a giraffe award (for sticking your neck out, get it?) from me.

Keep in mind that Jin has no right to "own" a parking spot, and I for
one am glad the city is throwing the book at this piker.

Sincerely yours,

Adam Young

P.S. Alderman Verveer is a very good friend of mine.

Dustin Christopher said...

GH... Holy crap, you perused my blog. I am not worthy. Stop back again!

Emily... Welcome aboard the fence. To my understanding, vending on library mall is not allowed at night and requires a special permit during the day. I believe the bit of ordinance that forbids vending on the pedestrian areas at night was actually crafted in response to Mr. Okafo's business.

Mr. Young, it seems you won't be joining us on the fence, which is unfortunate. Perhaps a second perusal of my "diatribe" is in order, for a trifecta of reasons.

Firstly, as well read as you seem, you failed to take away from the piece that there is no such person as "Jin." There is a very colorful story behind that name, and I'm sure Jeff Okafo would be happy to tell it to you if you were to so much as attempt to engage him in conversation. Then again, if you're the type that doesn't associate with "pikers," "rule-breakers" or "black people," google up an article I saw by the Badger Herald about his business, and you can get all the information you need without associating with any "undesirables."

Secondly, I too consider myself a friend of Mike Verveer's, which is why I felt comfortable consulting with him before I wrote this story. I'm sure I don't know him as well as you do, nor have I known him as long, but I went so far as to note the respect I hold for the man, undermining the very "argument" you seem to think I was making. I weighed his opinion heavily while I crafted this piece, but in the end, I decided Mike's perspective is conveyed everywhere else you look: in city policy, in the minutes from the Vending Oversight Committee meetings and in people like you.

Which brings me to my third point. A "diatribe?" Seriously, is that what passes for a diatribe nowadays? No, Mr. Young, I was telling a story that I thought people might be interested to read. I gauge this based on the fact that I was personally interested to hear Mr. Okafo's perspective, and as a "people" myself, I can generally figure out what they would like to read about.

A teacher and inspiration of mine, Steven Walters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, once told me, "Everybody's got a story they're just waiting to tell. They're just looking for someone to tell it to." Jeff Okafo was happy to impart his story to me, relieved even. Then, as a story-teller, I had to ask myself, "Is there a value to this story?" I sure think so, if as nothing more than a cautionary tale, but also to outline the inherent dangers any kind of institution can pose to individuality.

I'm not personally waving the flag of anarchy, and I'm not condemning anyone here. From my honest, common-sense perspective, while a six month suspension may be a little steep, Jeff Okafo ought to come under some kind of scrutiny to ensure that he finds a way to make his living without breaking city laws.

But, for the sake of conscience, I simply chose to outline a perspective many people may not have considered in this story, and the fact that you perceived it as a diatribe and reacted in such a kneejerk fashion tells me you have firmly entrenched yourself on one side of the proverbial, aforementioned fence. As such, humanizing someone like "Jin" kind of turns your whole worldview upside down, doesn't it? It makes you uncomfortable. I get the feeling you're still struggling to figure out if the whole "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" cliche isn't just some kind of play on words.

In closing, let it be known that when I write a goddamn diatribe, you will know it as such. I hope I have made clear what my intentions were with this piece. I hope that I have not offended you to the point where, when we meet in person (because this town's not that big), we can't order a round and argue it out further in person. And I don't really think you're a racist, an elitist or a simpleton, but it sure was easy to perceive you as such based on the 321 words of florid prose you posted...to vilify you and dehumanize you, as it were.

But mostly, I hope I've conveyed a broader message. The hardest skill I've had to learn in my line of work is the suspension of judgement for someone I may think clearly deserves it. I'm still learning it. There are days I'm sure I've utterly failed at learning it.

So, simply put...lighten up, dude.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to agree with AY on this one. As someone who rents an apartment on Gilman/Frances Street, parking is a major issue. The spot I pay for is four blocks from my apartment, so at times I need to park closer to drop off groceries or run in to get my dog. It is extremely frustrating to actually have a few dollars in change, ride around the block a few times, and see the Jin's cart sitting there as it does day in and day out taking up a valuable space. I'm ultimately resolved to park in the State Street ramp or park illegally.

There is a monthly parking lot by the University Inn at the end of Frances Street. If you take notice, there are two or three vendor carts parked in that lot on a daily basis. Sure, the rent for the space may be $150 a month, but from what I can tell that is cheaper than what this guy spends on parking tickets and fees. Parking downtown in this city is a pain, but if that is the ONLY thing negatively affecting your livelihood, then rent a freakin parking space. Simple solution.

On another note, anyone I know who has gone to Jin's chicken says that he should open a restaurant. Maybe it's time to think about a new business plan. The cart situation on Frances Street gets totally ridiculous around 2 AM anyway -- people yell, play loud music, get in fights, and throw food and trash everywhere. On Saturday or Sunday morning the place looks absolutely disgusting. (Imagine walking to your apartment through a wall of gross food and flies.) The carts (not just Jin's) are a nuisance, bottom line.

PS -- Judgment has no "e" after the "g".

Anonymous said...

Hmm, let's see; $150/mo. in parking tickets or $2000/mo. in rent? One man works when he wants, or an entire staff has to keep open every day? Anonymous, maybe you shouldn't live in bar central?

CP said...

Jeff Okafo is a public nuisance. His blatant disregard for laws and vending ordinances in the city of Madison are nothing new. In 2004, he appeared before the city council for numerous violations and was suspended for 6-months. (article here: http://badgerherald.com/news/2004/09/24/committe_moves_to_su.php).

Furthermore, the City Council and Vending Oversight Committee re-drafted the entire city vending zone map to prohibit vendors from operating in residential areas (Jeff previously operated on the 200 block of Langdon street) and allowed vendors to operate in more heavily trafficked commercial areas like N. Frances (previously forbidden). This was largely in part's to Jeff Okafo carelessly leaving garbage around his cart and neighborhood and fostering an extension of Madison nightlife - featuring video games and loud music - all at the expense of neighborhood residents. Despite numerous complaints to Okafo and the city council from local landlords and residents, he refused to cooperate change his obnoxious business practices and was arrested during an confrontation with police. He was given a relatively light punishment and even allowed the opportunity to operate in a much more lucrative neighborhood. Though yet again, Okafo was been combative with police and disrespectful of basic city laws with a sense of entitlement to do so.

It's time for the city council to recognize a consistent pattern of disobedience with the law. The council's time is ill-spent in dealing with a nuisance like Jeff Okafo year in and year out.

His license should be suspended permanently.

No matter how popular his sandwiches may be.

- Craig Chester '05


Anonymous said...

If you think Jeff Okafo actually pays his parking tickets, you're crazy. The guy also drives with a revoked license and no liability insurance. I've personally seen him lie to police, so I'd take any story he tells with a block of salt.