By JOSH NEWTON
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols says a proposed ordinance could allow the city to dish out higher fines and create a volunteer group to help crack down on people who illegally park in spots marked for physically disabled drivers.
The proposed measure, which will appear before the city soon, would raise the maximum fine to $500 for improperly parking in a handicapped-parking zone.
“It also authorizes the chief – and I will leave it to his discretion and wisdom as to whether he wants to do this – to put together a citizen enforcement group,” said Nichols.
If the Tahlequah Police Department chose to use a volunteer group, those who patrol public parking lots for potential violations would be required to sit through training and meet other stipulations.
State law – and approval of the ordinance – would allow the volunteers to gather photographic evidence of violations.
“Doesn’t mean it has to happen, but I at least wanted to provide the tools in case [the police department] deemed it necessary,” Nichols said.
Ward 3 Councilor Maurice Turney asked if the $500 fine is “standard,” and said it seems “sort of high.” Nichols said Ward 2 Councilor Charles Carroll had a similar opinion.
“You could reword that section as well to say ‘shall be fined up to,’” said Nichols. “I know there will be members of the public who will be disappointed if we water it down too much. There is an epidemic; I mean, there’s no doubt people pay no attention. I’d like to make the statement that we’re serious about this. I know Dr. Carroll’s argument was he was looking out for the average person. The average person shouldn’t take the spot away from the person with below-average mobility.”
Turney said he sees violations “all the time,” but sees no citations issued.
Nichols said part of the problem is lack of education on proper markings for handicapped-accessible spots.
“You can’t just slap down some paint. Signage has to be a certain height, a certain size, a certain emblem,” said Nichols.
City Attorney Park Medearis said the potential for a volunteer group should help take some of the burden from police.
“Prosecutions could be done on the strength of photographic evidence that can be gathered [by the volunteers],” said Medearis. “It would allow, for example, someone to patrol the Walmart parking lot, or the Lowe’s parking lot, Reasor’s, or wherever it happens to be, and collect that photographic evidence for it to be submitted for a potential prosecution.”
Nichols told councilors he would count on at least a dozen citizens to sign up for the group, but expects three or four would be active.
Carroll brought up the state’s open-carry law, and whether that could lead to any issues if a volunteer was carrying a firearm.
Nichols said volunteers would be told to gather their photographic evidence and avoid any confrontations. They would be told to stay away from the offender.
That information, and other details, would be part of the training process volunteers would encounter.