For a few Quarters More | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

For a few Quarters More 

City Enforcer Gary Somerville Takes Down a Gang of Meter Cheaters

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By Tori Marlan

Gary Somerville, the ruddy-faced head of security for the Department of Revenue's parking division, is standing on the corner of Wacker and Columbus preparing to ruin the day for more than a few people. "You know the routine," he tells a man in a booting van. "As soon as we get there I want you to start running the plates. We're looking for a car that's boot-eligible." He borrows a tow-truck driver's two-way radio. A dispatcher informs him that two meter attendants are on their way. Wait for my call, he tells the booter and tow-truck driver.

Soon Somerville is off in his car, which is thick with the smell of stale smoke. He turns left onto Stetson and passes the Athletic Club at Illinois Center and two young guys from Auto Park Valet, the targets of today's operation. At the end of Stetson he makes a U-turn and parks half a block from a sign that's propped in the street advertising valet parking for $6.

Somerville doesn't get his binoculars out of the backseat. He doesn't have to. He knows what's going on. The valet guys have commandeered the whole stretch of meters in front of the posh club, in effect privatizing the parking spaces and--since they don't feed the meters--pocketing what would have been city revenue. In an equally egregious violation of city ordinances they double-park their customers' cars and keep them in loading and handicapped zones until meters free up.

Somerville is responsible for preventing people from ripping off the city, and nailing them when they do. A few weeks ago he learned that parking-meter revenue in area 336--near the Athletic Club--was dropping. Small dips are no cause for concern. Meter revenue always varies from one collection period to the next. Most of the fluctuations are innocent--people's parking habits change, meters jam, the city closes off streets for construction, a festival, cleaning, or a film crew.

But when revenue from an area is down by about $350, Somerville says, his boss is likely to send him a memo. "My job is to investigate and try to determine why an area drops," he says. "We were doing revenue watches on 336, and it kept dropping. So I figured, uh-oh, either my guys are stealing or somebody's running some kind of game on me. So I sat down the street for a day or so, watched what was going on, and bingo, I see guys throwing all the cars on our meters and not putting any money in. It doesn't take a genius to figure this one out. If they park four cars on one meter in the course of the day they've made $24. It's 24 to zero, that's what I say. They're ahead and we're behind."

When Somerville realized what was happening he approached one of the valet guys and played dumb. "Are you sure you can use these meters?" he asked. "My boss said it was OK," he says one responded. Somerville returned a week later, introduced himself, and informed the valet guys that they were violating city ordinances. When he went back a third time they still hadn't made any changes. "These guys just don't get it," he thought. That's when he decided to tow, boot, and ticket any of their customers' cars he could.

At 9:42 AM Somerville calls a city dispatcher from his cell phone. "Alfredo, would you tell 924 and Jackson to start moving in?" Seconds later he pulls up behind one of the double-parked cars. Whipping out his investigator's badge, he makes a beeline for the valet guys.

"How you doing today?" he says. "I know you're putting money in the meters like you said you were going to do, right?"

"Yeah," a guy with a ponytail says meekly.

Somerville points to the nearest meter, which is flashing zeros. "Including this one here?"

"It just expired."

Two meter attendants armed with ticket books charge the block. The powder blue city vehicles round the corner--the booter van rolls slowly along one side of the street, stopping briefly behind each car, and the tow truck trails behind it.

Somerville steps into the middle of the street and flags down the tow truck. "Bring it around," he yells, directing the driver to a new-looking Volvo sitting under a sign that says Valet Loading--Tow Zone. The sign is directly over the city's legitimate No Parking--Loading Zone sign.

"Guess what's going to happen?" Somerville says to the valet operators. "What do you think I have that tow truck here for?"

A mixture of concern and regret washes over the face of the guy with short hair. Finally he says, "Is there any way we can, uh--"

He doesn't know what to say, and Somerville doesn't give him time to think. "I told you before, sir, you're running your business off the city of Chicago's meters. I told you it's illegal."

The tow truck hitches the Volvo.

"Can't you take one of those cars that's, like, less expensive?" the short-haired guy says.

Somerville, who drives a Ford, purses his lips tightly. "Oh, poor people it's OK, and rich people get away with it?"

There are numerous ways to cheat the city, and all of them aggravate Somerville. Store owners wrap plastic bags over working meters, construction workers substitute slugs for quarters, vandals spray paint time-indicator windows, and people deflate their tires or use pry bars to remove (and sometimes steal) boots. Meter collectors pilfer quarters, booters accept bribes, mechanics skillfully break meters so they can scoop up the coins inside when they're doing maintenance. On any given day half of the dysfunctional meters in the city have been intentionally jammed with paper or paper clips or gum or some other object.

The city began seriously clamping down on theft and vandalism when it hired Somerville in December 1988. He came to the job with 16 years' experience as a police officer and a couple years' experience conducting private investigations, which he still does on the side.

He brought with him a large bucket of surveillance equipment and other investigative tools. These days his arsenal includes night-vision goggles, four different sizes of binoculars, a tape recorder, a videocam, two still cameras, a tool belt (to fit in with construction workers he suspects of wrongdoing), Mace marked "for law enforcement only" ("Ten times stronger than anything you can buy on the street"), and a set of handcuffs ("If I see a guy breaking a meter with a sledgehammer I'm not going to go up to him and say, 'Would you please wait for the police?'"). "I'm trying to get more equipment," he says. "This is a minimum."

Somerville likes to spend as much time in the field as he can. He refers to his office as "the dungeon," because of its location in the dingy basement of the Kraft Building and because it has a cell-like room that's used for storage. Yet it's down here that Somerville practices one of his most reliable methods of preventing theft and identifying lazy meter collectors: "salting quarters."

Somerville writes on quarters with invisible ink, then drops the marked coins into randomly chosen meters as well as in meters in areas he's investigating. After the collectors finish their routes Somerville confiscates the collection cans from the salted areas and takes them to his office, where he dumps them, one can at a time, into a box and turns off the overhead light. Holding a black light in one hand and foraging through the coins with the other, he usually spots a chalky G or X in a matter of seconds. If he doesn't, he knows the collector either stole the quarter or failed to complete the day's route. "Technically, if I don't catch someone with their hand in the cookie jar there's no way I'll ever be able to prove they stole anything."

It's actually difficult for collectors to steal from meters. Theoretically the only way they can come into contact with quarters is if something's wrong with the meter or the collection can inside. Each meter is equipped with a can shaped like a bank's pneumatic tube that catches quarters, and the collector empties the can by locking it onto a larger can and twisting, transferring the quarters from the small to the large can without handling them. But Somerville says that despite the tight security the superdetermined will figure out how to get to the change. Sometimes he'll test a collector's loyalty by rigging a meter so that the quarters land in a heap inside the well rather than inside the can. One of those quarters will be salted.

Somerville says that salting, or more likely the threat of salting, deters collectors from slacking off on the job. Since they're paid for eight hours regardless of how long they're on the street, the temptation to blow off meters on their route is strong. Because the city pays the private collection agency by the number of meters collected, Somerville considers skipping meters stealing. "If you skip them," he tells new collectors, "you skip on out of here." He says he makes exceptions in cold weather or when the collectors would have to roll their carts over sleeping homeless people, which is sometimes the case on lower Michigan and Wacker. "I try to be fair, but I expect them to tell me if they skip."

Somerville says he's broken a lot of cases by what he calls "sniffing around" (following employees, staking out businesses) and "stumbling and mumbling" (riding around to "see what you see"). Once while training a new security employee, he noticed a collector dipping into meters. Somerville tailed him for two blocks and retrieved $140 in stolen quarters from the collector's pockets.

Sometimes Somerville's security measures seem so elementary that it's a wonder they're effective. He might strategically place on his desk a fictional report suggesting that an employee is stealing, then call the person in for questioning. He says it's surprising how often the employee will fess up to a real theft. "He will look at the report and say, 'Wait a minute, I didn't do it by myself.'"

Somerville realizes that no matter how good he is, no matter how high-tech his methods or equipment, he can't eradicate theft from the department. "Sears doesn't catch everybody, Montgomery Ward doesn't catch everybody, there's no way I'm going to catch everybody. I'm not so naive as to think people aren't stealing and getting away with it."

Yet the department has more than doubled its meter revenue during Somerville's tenure, climbing from about $7 million a year to $15.9 million. "I don't credit that all to security," he says, "but I guarantee guys think twice about stealing now." Parking division officials say an increase in ticket fines and meter rates (up to a quarter for only ten minutes in the busiest Loop locations) have also contributed to revenue growth. Somerville claims that he and his security staff alone saved the city $175,000 last year in outstanding tickets just by tracking down "GOAs" (gone on arrivals, or people who freed their booted cars), and they recovered $90,000 worth of booting devices.

Occasionally Somerville is called upon to defend his tactics in front of Department of Personnel hearing officers by employees charging they've been harassed. Every now and then someone harangues him for invading an employee's privacy, but Somerville contends that everybody in the parking division--himself included--is being watched by somebody and everybody knows it. Department managers say that's the way it has to be, because there's a lot of money at stake. Last year combined revenue from parking tickets and meters totaled $95 million. Somerville admits that some of his tactics sound terrible when he's in court testifying against an employee. "But that's what I have to do to keep this place honest."

Some collectors say they don't mind the scrutiny. "All you have to do is follow the guidelines and rules and regulations," says Garry Brown, a collector for almost five months. "We got a little handbook. You do everything that's inside that and there's no way you can get in trouble." Brown is watched not only by Somerville and his security staff, but also by his supervisor, Peter Sanders--who's being watched in turn. "If you're not doing anything wrong it shouldn't bother you," Sanders says. "The way Gary runs his operation is fair. He's not out to get you. He's just making sure you're doing your job."

Somerville says his biggest problem by far lies with the public. "It amazes me what people will do to sidestep a meter. You see enough of it every day and you get tired of it." It's an affront to Somerville every time someone vandalizes a meter or pries off a boot. "I guess I do take it personally," he admits.

What really irked him about the valet guys at the Athletic Club was that they ignored his warnings. (Paul Loxas, who owns Auto Park, says Somerville "never fully explained to them what the problem was" and that if Somerville had called him directly he would have made sure the valet service complied with city ordinances.)

On the day Somerville decided to blitz the area he was sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette and peering at the valet guys through binoculars. As he saw them hustle cars into the spaces, ignoring the meters, he felt some satisfaction thinking that the next time he returned they'd be forced to take him seriously. "Well, you've had your fun," he said. "Now it's my turn."

If Somerville's having fun at this point in the Athletic Club operation, he's disguising it well.

He's shouting at the short-haired valet guy, who slipped a quarter into a meter after noticing the meter attendants ticketing some cars. "Step over here," Somerville orders.

"No, I won't," says the valet guy, approaching the next meter.

Somerville yells to the tow-truck driver in the middle of the street, "Give me the radio. I'll call for a squad car."

"OK, OK," the valet guy says.

A short while later the Athletic Club's interim manager, a boyish-looking man, comes out and introduces himself to Somerville. Without being asked, Somerville gives him the rundown, then says, "I would strongly suggest, such as the ordinance requires, that you have a lot, 'cause I'm going to write a report to City Council asking that the valet license be revoked. I'm not trying to be a hard guy, but these meters were not designed for valet parking. If I pulled up they'd tell me I can't park here until I pay $6. Who are they to control the city of Chicago's streets?"

"OK," the manager says.

"I hope this won't inconvenience your customers, because that's not my intent."

"Well," the manager says, a resigned smile appearing on his face, "it will, but I mean--"

"My intent is to do my job, and I certainly intend to follow through with it, especially after giving them a warning."

"So to work it out we need to feed the meters?"

"I'm telling you that's illegal. You should have a lot."

"Believe me, we'd love to have a lot," the manager assures him. "It costs millions of dollars."

But the valet guys had told Somerville that Auto Park has a lot. The problem is that it's a seven-minute drive from the club. It's easier to use the meters.

The booter finishes running the plates on the block. When he informs Somerville that they're all clean he's dismissed. After the meter attendants have hit the eligible cars--nine in all--they too return to their regular schedule.

The tow-truck driver, back from the pound, sets his sights on a white Lexus in the loading zone. The short-haired guy tries to persuade Somerville to let him move the car to the Auto Park lot. "Come on, you towed one car. That's a hundred dollars. You already put me out of business. I got the message, trust me."

"Yeah, and you'll get a real good message when you have to explain to that customer where the car is."

"But he's going to damage it," the short-haired guy says.

"Believe me, he's towed many cars, and we're insured if we damage it."

The tow-truck driver slides a jimmy down the car window, trying to unlock the door so he can straighten out the wheels. The short-haired guy pleads with him not to break into the car and brings him the keys.

Somerville begins to soften. His aim isn't to hurt the citizen, after all. "Sir, you know where this customer is right now?"

"Yeah."

"Go get him."

A few minutes later the manager comes out of the club. "That's Joe Perillo's car," he tells Somerville.

Somerville draws a blank. He's never heard of the car-dealer tycoon.

"He's in the shower right now. Can I move it for him?"

Permission granted.

Somerville gets into his car to leave. But before he can pull away the short-haired guy appears at his window. "Yeah, buddy?" Somerville says.

The valet guy says he needs some time to find a lot nearby.

Somerville tells him to call his boss. "Do it today, will you? Let's get together so we can work this out so it's a satisfactory thing to you and to me. You don't need this."

The valet guy says again that what he needs is some time.

"Call my boss," Somerville says. "If he says it's OK, it's OK. If not, I gotta do my job so he pays me. I gotta eat too. Alrighty? Thank you and have a nice day."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Cynthia Howe.

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