Predatory Towing Law Stalls

This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.

With tow company push back

Jake Thomas

The Portland Observer

Two years ago Sean Cruz, a northeast Portland resident, used to start his day with a cup of coffee and a look out his window to see if one of his cars had been towed.

Retriever Towing had assumed Cruz’s cars were parked illegally on the nearby property of Hacienda Community Development Corporation, which he suggests was in cahoots with the company, and repeatedly towed his cars.

Cruz said he also watched immigrants with limited English abilities, housed at Hacienda, grapple with towers that would swoop out of nowhere and hitch up their cars as soon as their backs were turned.

The incident set off a long battle between Cruz, then chief of staff to former State Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, and Oregon’s towing companies, the recent chapter of which unfolded in Salem earlier this month when a bill that was geared toward ending predatory towing was sidetracked after towing companies howled loud enough about certain provisions in the bill.

Oregon has left towing companies largely unregulated, but had been slowly moving toward clamping down on freewheeling towers.

The most recent effort to regulate towing companies came in the form of House Bill 2578, a bill sponsored by Rep. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro.

The proposed legislation would have prohibited paying tow truck operators by commission, required the property owners OK before a towing occurred, prevented cars from being towed until two hours had passed; and made it illegal for towers to patrol lots looking for potential parking violations.
Portland caps the rate that towers can charge vehicle owners at $161, plus other fees, and requires that towers notify the police. People who have had their cars towed can file complaints, and towers can have their licenses yanked.
Last month alone, over 700 hundred cars were towed in Portland, according to city records. At $161 a pop, there is money to be made.

Currently property owners enter into a contact with a towing company to keep unauthorized cars from parking in their lot. Many of these companies pay their towers based on the cars they tow.

Cruz said that the commission-based pay that towers rely on is a major problem because it’s in the towers’ interest to haul off more cars- an arrangement, he says, that lends to predatory practices.

“We need to eliminate the conflict of interest,” he said.

The prospects of passing the bill were good, according to Riley, until the proposed legislation went to a public hearing last month before the Oregon House Consumer Protection Committee where tow company representatives made a fuss over some provisions.

“This is overreaching,” said Steve Preston, the president of the Portland-based Sargent’s towing.

Preston was uncomfortable with the state telling him how he could pay his employees and feels he should be able to pay his employees by commission if he chooses.

He said that the Legislature had no business telling him how to run his operation. In particular, Preston had a problem with the provision that made towers wait two hours before they could tow an illegally parked car, saying that it essentially amounted to free parking.

Preston also took issue with the provision requiring property owners to be notified before a car was towed from their property, explaining that it was unreasonable to expect a property owner to be available all hours of the day.

“Property owners don’t want to get up at 5 a.m.,” quipped Preston.

Cruz was also present to testify. He said that the bill doesn’t do enough to protect disabled people who have their cars towed. Such people may have medicines in the car, and having their cars towed leaves them particularly vulnerable.

“I really feel this is a terrible failure,” he said.

According to Kevin Jeffries, a legislative assistant for Riley, the bill was referred to a workgroup that will include advocates for regulation of the industry and tow company representatives.

Although the bill is on hold for the time being, in recent years the legislature has been leaning toward regulating the industry that has largely been left to its own devices.

In 2007, Gordly, successfully passed bills that allowed the state and municipalities to regulate the industry. She also got bills passed that prohibits towers from carting off vehicles just because they have expired tags, required towers to provide vehicle owners with a printed rate sheet if their car is towed, among other provisions.

However, Cruz said he ran into opposition from lobbyists from the tow truck industry and commercial property owners who, he said, wield significant political clout.

Jeffries said he hasn’t encountered such opposition, but Cruz remains optimistic.

“Everyone has a towing story,” he said.

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About jakethomasreports

Jake Thomas is the web editor and news reporter at the Portland Observer. His freelance work has been published in In These Times, Utne Magazine, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, and others.
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