Exempt from anti-quota law, Muni fare inspectors pressured to issue tickets

Transit fare inspectors in The City are sometimes disciplined, and even suspended from their jobs, for not issuing enough tickets to fare-evading Muni riders.

A disciplinary report leaked to the San Francisco Examiner shows the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reprimanded one of its inspectors in February for failing to write enough tickets to bus passengers who didn’t pay their fares. The inspector, whose name the Examiner is withholding, was suspended one day, according to the report.

Advocates, union leaders and good-government experts told the Examiner that punishing fare inspectors for not writing enough tickets implies the existence of a quota, which, in turn, may cause inspectors to write tickets they otherwise wouldn’t.

In California, parking enforcement officers cannot be disciplined for failing to meet ticketing quotas, nor can they be rewarded for meeting them. However that legal requirement, written into the California Vehicle Code in 1976, does not specifically name transit fare inspectors within the statute.

Roger Marenco, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A that represents fare inspectors and Muni drivers, would not comment on specific disciplinary action, but said generally that a quota for fare inspectors, even if it only implied, is a problem.

“If it is law that the Department of Parking and Traffic should not be held to a quota, that should apply to transit fare inspectors as well,” Marenco said. Quotas, he added, could lead to “unnecessary, iffy citations. Citations that are borderline.”

SFMTA fare evasion supervisor Lawrence Nichol checks proof of payment on a train at Van Ness station. (Jessica Christian/2014 S.F. Examiner)

The SFMTA said the specific language in the vehicle code exempts fare inspectors from the anti-quota law.

“Transit Fare Inspectors are neither peace officers or parking enforcement employees,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said in a statement. “This code does not apply and citation issuance was not the sole reason for discipline.”

However, some legal experts believe the SFMTA should hold fare inspectors to the spirit of the law.

Elisa Della-Piana, an attorney with the Bay Area chapter of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, pointed to The City’s transit-first policy as a reason to level the playing field.

“I would hope the SFMTA would hold its officers to the same standards of justice that we would apply in the context of cars,” Della-Piana said.

The disciplinary report in question claims the transit fare inspector issued two citations during an eight-hour shift. By contrast, the fare inspector’s colleagues brought in “more than five” citations. The fare inspector claimed they were offering Spanish language translations for other inspectors at 30th and Mission Street that day, according to the report, though the SFMTA countered that the inspector was not assigned to Muni lines in that area.

“[The inspector] is a long-tenured transit fare inspector of seventeen years and over the course of an eight-hour shift can surely bring in more than two citations even while translating,” the SFMTA wrote in its decision to discipline the inspector. In the report, the SFMTA also compared the employee to another inspector who often provides translations and “regularly brought in more than fifteen citations a day.”

The report also said the fare inspector was reprimanded for not remaining “professional” when questioned by their supervisor.

The SFMTA employs 50 fare enforcement officers, according to the agency. From July 1 to June 30 in Fiscal Year 2015-16, the SFMTA issued 45,841 tickets and that yielded $2.2 million. In Fiscal Year 2016-17, the agency issued 48,627 tickets that brought in $2.6 million. To date, the SFMTA has issued 31,000 tickets and yielded $1.5 million in Fiscal Year 2017-18.

Rose said fare inspectors “provide a sense of security through their presence in the Muni system.”

“One of the most common requests from our riders is to increase fare enforcement throughout the system,” he said, “and we’ve been working to adjust deployment strategies to ensure that happens.”

A man pays the Muni fare with a Clipper card on Thursday in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The Financial Justice Project, an effort launched by Treasurer Jose Cisneros, recently worked with the SFMTA to reform its fine and fee structures, offering payment plans for certain low-income Muni riders. Della-Piana, who advocated for that effort, said the fare inspector’s punishment for failing to write tickets is especially problematic in light of the SFMTA’s efforts to ease the impacts of its tickets.

“If I were this fare inspector and I had been suspended for a day, the message certainly seems to be that more tickets is the most important message for success, which is dangerous,” Della-Piana said. That enforcement is also concerning due to “many instances” of racial bias and discrimination in government, she said.

Larry Bush, a San Francisco-based good-government watchdog who crafted many of The City’s ethics laws, noted the 1976 anti-quota law should be updated “every 10 years.” Had it been updated, he said, the law likely would have included transit fare inspectors due to San Francisco’s recent shift to all-door boarding on Muni buses.

“Cars don’t last 40 years, neither should the laws that govern them,” Bush said.

Muni riders who spoke to the Examiner were surprised to learn of the action taken against the transit fare inspector in February.

“Wow, pretty harsh to know they have a ticket quota, as well as insufficient language services to help consumers,” said attorney and activist Christine Pelosi.

Pelosi recalled being stopped by fare inspectors after walking with her daughter in an Earth Day science march by the waterfront last year.

“We were dressed in full Earth Day regalia,” said Pelosi, who shared photos of both of them in earthy greens, with her daughter sporting a shirt cut to look like leaves. “My thought was, ‘Really?’ Did they think people dressed as trees would cheat Earth-friendly public transportation?”

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Dee Dee Workman, a public policy consultant who lives and works in San Francisco, also encountered fare inspectors she felt were unduly harsh. She was on the 49-Van Ness/Mission with a malfunctioning Clipper Card reader.

“Nobody could use a Clipper on that bus,” Workman recalled. “I wasn’t the only one.”

After exiting the bus, she was met by fare inspectors. When she tried to explain the reader was broken, Workman was given a $109 ticket anyhow.

However, Workman was hesitant to say quotas played a role in her ticket.

“What I can tell you is that it was really clear the inspectors were writing tickets no matter what,” she said. “There’s no conversation, there’s no nothing.”

Changes to the California Vehicle Code to include transit fare inspectors would require revisions from state legislators, but Marenco fears “bogus” citations may cause San Franciscans to pay uneccesary fines. The former Muni operator said he received such a ticket years ago while parking.

“I was once given a ticket for not having my wheels curbed enough,” he said. “They were curbed, but not curbed enough. What is enough?”

In the same way parking officers are held to high standards, Marenco said fare inspectors should not be pushed into writing tickets that are “open, ambiguous” or “up to interpretation.”

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