Did they ticket the wrong people?

Suspended Parking Utility employees claim unfair leniency for politically connected
By: Michael D. Mullins and Tom Jennemann , Hoboken Reporter 

Two Hoboken parking employees who were suspended last month for allegedly issuing tickets in a "retaliatory manner" say they are the ones being retaliated against for trying to write tickets for police officers and other connected individuals who were illegally parked.

Parking Enforcement Officers Mario Rodriguez and Ruben Gonzalez have been suspended without pay since mid-April, after being charged with conduct unbecoming of a public employee. They say the only thing they are guilty of is writing the tickets for the wrong people.

John Corea, the Parking Utility head, in a written statement, denied there is selective enforcement. "This administration has encouraged appropriate enforcement of all parking regulations. However, it is a great concern if any city employee misuses their authority regarding parking or enforcement."

Suspended without pay

Rodriguez, 21, a born-and-raised Hoboken resident who has been working for the Parking Authority for a little over two years, said he was suspended after he booted a private vehicle that belonged to a Hoboken police officer.

The incident occurred on April 21, when Rodriguez booted a vehicle that he said did not appear to have its residential parking sticker. The problem was that the car in fact did have the required sticker, only in the wrong area of the windshield.

Parking stickers are supposed to be placed in the lower right-hand corner of the front windshield.

Rodriguez, who claims not to have seen the sticker and has offered to make a public apology to the officer for his mistake, said that the glass' glare along with a shadow cast by the top of the car concealed the permit from view.

Rodriguez said that he was accused of improperly giving the ticket due to an alleged personal dispute between him and the officer.

The Preliminary Notice of Discliplinary Action given to Rodriguez states, "You have been improperly giving tickets to Police Officer James Perez and you improperly placed a boot on his vehicle on Friday, April 21, 2006 because of a personal dispute you have with him."

Did it happen before?

According to Rodriguez, he had ticketed the same officer in the summer of 2004. Several months after issuing the ticket, Rodriquez claims he was followed from his house by a squad car driven by the officer. The police subsequently pulled Rodriguez over for allegedly running a stop sign. The ticket was dismissed in court a year later.

Regarding the latest parking ticket, Rodriguez claimed he did not to realize that the car belonged to the same officer.

"This was an honest mistake and they blew the whole thing out of proportion," Rodriguez said. "They didn't even give me a chance to defend myself."

Can't ticket PBA cars

Rodriguez said that there is an unstated code among Hoboken Parking Utility enforcement officers that they should give leniency to private vehicles that belong to Hoboken police officers.

"We can't do our job because we have to watch out if the vehicle has a PBA sticker on the back of it," claims Rodriguez. "That's selective enforcement. No one should be above the law."

This claim was supported by the other parking employee, Gonzalez.

"You gotta look the other way when you see a PBA sticker," he said. "Or you gotta call them up before you give them a ticket."

"If one PBA car is in violation, we have to ignore all the cars in violation on the block. That shouldn't be," Rodriguez.

'Just doing my job'

Gonzalez was suspended on April 18 after his supervisor received complaints from a prominent local businessman who had received several tickets in the mail he never got on his windshield.

Gonzalez, who says the three or four tickets were all placed on the windshield of the vehicle, can't understand how he could be held responsible if the recipient claims not to have received them.

"I got suspended for doing my job," said Gonzalez, a 13-year city employee who has been at his current position for the last five. "People get pissed off at you on the street; you expect that. But you don't expect your job to go against you because someone has a problem with the way they received a ticket."

The individual who made the complaint has accrued over $300 worth of fines over the past few weeks, according Gonzalez, who issued every ticket.

"I did nothing, but what I was supposed to do now?" he said. "I'm suspended without pay. I have never been suspended and now, because one guy complains, they take his side. That's not right."

Gonzales' notice of disciplinary action states, "You have been improperly issuing tickets in a retaliatory manner, which is a clear abuse of your job duties."

Union support

Rodriguez and Gonzalez are both members of the city employees' union. Joseph Grossi, president of the union, said Thursday that employees are supposed to have a grievance hearing within five days of their suspension. That didn't happen in this case, according to Grossi.

Grossi added that Rodriguez and Gonzalez were suspended several weeks ago, and Gonzalez must wait until May 13 for his hearing. Rodriguez's hearing is scheduled for May 26.

"You can't discipline [an employee] without a hearing," Grossi said.

He added that if they are not cleared of the charges, the union's attorney will move to have both cases heard in arbitration. He said that Gonzalez and Rodriguez should be reinstated with back pay for the days they missed.

Grossi added that it's not fair for the city to leave city employees in limbo.

"These guys have bills and pay rent to pay," Grossi said.

Fear of retribution

Even if he does get back his job at this point, Rodriguez said he is concerned about retribution.

"I'm scared; I'm really scared," Rodriguez said. "But I can't sit back and take it. I feel as though if I keep quiet this time, I'll be targeted again."

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