IF THE idea of a Sydney council going out of its way to hand back parking fines sounds like fairyland, consider moving to Parramatta. The council is creating a new appeals panel, staffed by residents, that will be empowered to cancel fines in special circumstances.The lord mayor of Parramatta, Paul Garrard, said that a six-month trial of the system resulted in almost one in five fines being cancelled, indicating it would cost the council ”thousands of dollars”. But he said the goodwill generated was worth it.”This is not a get-out-of-jail free card, but there are some issues that aren’t totally clear cut,” Cr Garrard said. ”And council has the opportunity to act in those grey areas.”Made up of two residents and one council officer, the panel will be empowered to consider all possible factors that lead to a parking infringement, including hearing evidence from the relevant council ranger.It may exercise discretion to let people off with a warning if there are extenuating circumstances.Cr Garrard cited a recent example where a woman rushing to get to her grandson’s army graduation parade had misread a parking notice and was allowed off; or a hypothetical situation where a parent taking his or her child to the doctor overstayed a one-hour limit, as possible cases for a cancellation.”The panel can consider all the factors there – how would you feel if you were a grandmother trying to get to your grandson’s parade march [and you were booked]?” Cr Garrard said.The exact guidelines under which the panel may exercise discretion have not yet been finalised.The panel, the council’s own invention, was created not because rangers had made too many mistakes but because the exercise of their discretion was not clearly governed and the system had not been sufficiently flexible to be fair, Cr Garrard said.”We’re losing money out of this, but [parking fines] were never supposed to be a revenue source,” Cr Garrard said. ”We don’t put quotas on our community safety officers when they’re out there in the public arena. This effectively puts our money where our mouth is.”Sitting on the panel will be a volunteer job for the two residents. Nominations closed last week and the council is sorting through applications.Under the six-month trial conducted over summer a panel of council officers heard 453 penalty notice appeals. Of those, 89 were given a caution in lieu of the penalty, in 287 cases the penalty stood and 77 were withdrawn.Cr Garrard was expecting a flood of appeals when the residents’ panel first sits, which may be as soon as next month. Anyone whose case is rejected by the panel may still appeal to the State Debt Recovery Office.The Parking Infringement Review Panel is part of Parramatta council’s overhaul of its public image to present a friendlier face to residents. Rangers have been re-christened Community Safety Officers, and have ditched the ”military-like” leather jackets and cargo pants for the ”smarter” outfit of charcoal trousers and white-collared shirts.A spokeswoman from the Local Government and Shires Association of NSW said that to its knowledge, the Parramatta system was the first of its kind in the state. What are some of the craziest excuses you’ve ever heard? My son told me to park there.Driver:Officer: Is that your son in the car?Driver: Yes.Officer: How old is your son?Driver: Three.Some other excuses include “I was not stopped in the No Stopping zone, I was just waiting for someone.” or ”I have parked here 20 times before and never been booked.”How do you respond if someone gets angry at you?Staff are trained to deal with upset or difficult customers by undertaking regular customer service and conflict resolution training. It is important to deal with the emotion first then solve the problem/tasks. It is important to remain calm, be polite and actively listen as the person may just be having a bad day and a parking ticket is the final straw, have empathy (no one likes getting a ticket), explain the reason for the ticket and the options of appeal.Do you ever feel guilty about the job?Of course, it’s natural … to feel guilty at times. We’re all decent people who perform a role that is at times hard and for the most part thankless.Is there any joy in giving tickets to flashier cars?No. We employ fair and equitable enforcement of parking related legislation/regulations.Any leniency if someone leaves a note on their dash?No. If the vehicle is unattended there is no way to verify what is written on the note. As an example I have seen drivers place a note on the dash that reads “Broken down, gone to call the NRMA”. The review panel, however, will provide the means to verify legitimate cases.What’s the best part of the job, and the worst?The best part of the job would be working outdoors, educating people about parking requirements and generally helping people as ambassadors for the council. The worst part would be being abused or physically assaulted.
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