Recent changes and cutbacks to Chicago's Department of Administrative Hearings, are having a profound effect on drivers' ability to contest parking tickets and red light camera violations.
City budget cutbacks have struck every department in Chicago, including the Department of Administrative Hearings, which put some draconian measures into effect as of October 1, 2008.
One Hearing Facility Closed
The most apparent change was when the city closed the Administrative Hearing Center located at 800 N. Kedzie. This reduced the number of in-person hearing facilities from four to just three.
"We felt if we had to close any site, that (800 N. Kedzie) would be the place," explained Administrative Hearings Department director Scott Bruner. "Kedzie was the least utilized of our facilities. We regret having to do this and understand it's a bit of a hardship, especially for West Side residents."
While the Kedzie hearing location did see the least number of hearings of all four locations, it also saw the adjudication of 27, 779 hearings in 2007 and 23, 059 hearings in the 9 months it was open in 2008.
Hearing Officers Reduced From 4 To 2 Per Facility In Late 2008
The department also made the decision to reduce the number of Administrative Law Officers (ALOs) on duty at each hearing facility from four per location to just two hearing officers per facility. On January 1, the department compromised and increased that number to three hearing officers per location.
What this has meant to drivers looking to contest their parking and red light camera tickets in person is an often dramatic increase in waiting times.
In the recent past, it would take anywhere from 15-30 minutes to have an in-person hearing, with a potential wait of around an hour on a busy day.
These days it's taking considerably longer, with wait times sometimes exceeding two hours, according to some patrons. At the Central Hearing Facility at 400 W. Superior, it's not uncommon to see standing room only hearing rooms.
At the North Side Hearing Facility located at 2550 W. Addison, hearing rooms sometimes overflow into the hallways, with as many as 15-20 people in line waiting for a hearing and hearings going well past 5 p.m.
"I know times have increased," said Bruner. "At Addison, we've certainly had some very long days there...It's a pain. It was a pain before the cutbacks. This is an extra burden the public has to bear unfortunately."
Adjudication Times Triple For Contest By Mail
Staff reductions are also effecting tickets being contested by mail. The most obvious effect is the dramatic increase in the time it takes for a ticket contested by mail to be adjudicated.
According to the Department of Administrative Hearings, before October the average adjudication time for a ticket contested by mail was about 30 days. Now, it's taking anywhere from 90 to 108 days with most tickets averaging 100 days, or more than three times longer than before.
In-Person Hearings Decrease By 32% In Fourth Quarter Of 2008
One driver wonders if the increased wait times are discouraging people from having their tickets heard.
"Some people may not have the time to wait two hours to fight their tickets," says one ticketed driver who only gave a first name of "Brian" while waiting for a hearing. "Contesting your ticket on your lunch hour may be impossible now. I showed up one day for a hearing, saw the line and knew I couldn't wait that long."
While Brian was able to come back for his ticket hearing, he thinks many people may not think it's worth the wait.
"I bet some people show up and just say 'f*@k this!' and never come back for their hearing," Brian explained.
Initial numbers from Administrative Hearings seem to support this theory.
While there was an overall increase of 3.3% (4761 hearings) in-person hearings adjudicated in 2008, compared to 2007, there was a 32% decrease of in-person hearings in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared to the fourth quarter of 2007. This translates into a total decrease of 8769 in-person hearings in the fourth quarter of 2008.
"I bet a lot of people just decide to pay up," says Brian. "I think it may be a scam to piss people off, and force them to pay the ticket instead of fighting it."
Bruner feels that one can't attribute the entire decrease of in-person hearings to the budget cutbacks or make a fair assessment of the numbers based on just three months time.
"There are a whole lot of factors," contends Bruner who listed the closing of the Kedzie facility, the recent rollout of the new AutoCITE handheld ticketing units that can provide photo documentation of violations that may be discouraging people from contesting as well as the reduction in staffing as possible reasons for the drop off of in-person hearings.
Bruner agreed that increased wait times may discourage drivers contesting tickets in-person. "That's certainly a possibility," he said. "I can't disagree with that."
At least one person feels that the quality of the adjudication of tickets contested by mail is being compromised or at least different than in-person hearings.
"I've never lost an in-person hearing--EVER!," says a reader named John. "But I've lost all four times I've contested by mail. It's contradictory that I'm losing by mail and not in-person with the exact same photos, exact same testimony, same exact defense. There is no difference in my defense. I think the quality of the adjudication using contest by mail is horrendous."
But Bruner feels differently and doesn't feel the cutbacks are effecting the quality of the adjudication. "No, I don't think so. "We instruct our hearing officers that it isn't a race. They must look at each case on the merits. I stress with them that this is what I expect."
In the meantime, Bruner says they are constantly assessing all factors regarding the staff and service cutbacks, including wait times and hearing numbers.
"We're doing this (cutbacks) out of necessity and recognize the inconvenience the cutbacks bring," explained Bruner. "If we make the determination that times are increasing and service is dropping, we will make adjustments."
Advice For Drivers Contesting In Person
What should a driver do to get the speediest in-person hearing times?
"People should avoid Friday afternoons, Thursday afternoons and Wednesday afternoons in that order," according to Bruner. "It is best to get there as early in the morning as possible."
Here's a list of City of Chicago Hearing Facilities, addresses and hours of operation.
The Central Hearing Facility
400 W. Superior
Hours: 9-4 M-F, 9-3 Sat.
South side Facility
2006 E. 95th St.
Hours: 8-4 M-F
North side Facility
2550 W. Addison
Hours: 8-4 M-F
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