I’m no fan of winter here in central PA, but I carve out one big exception.
For two glorious months—January and February—street cleaning in Harrisburg usually stops because the cold, snow and ice prevent proper operation of the equipment.
Now, I’m all for keeping our storm drains clean, but I don’t understand why the sweeper needs to begin way before dawn, with the giant apparatus rumbling around the small streets in my neighborhood for a good hour, four times a month.
My complaint, though, seems to be an exception.
Folks in Harrisburg have no end of issues with street cleaning—its effectiveness, its reliability—but I’ve never heard anyone else grumble that it starts too early.
The number-one complaint seems to be this: If street cleaning stops in the winter, then why are cars still ticketed for street cleaning?
Ah, ancient Greece had its Riddle of the Sphinx. Harrisburg has its Riddle of the Street Cleaning.
And just as Greece had the legendary Oedipus crack its puzzle, Harrisburg has Steve Cline, a tall, rangy fellow who, while unlikely ever to be mistaken for a Greek hero, brashly took on Harrisburg’s great mystery.
I learned about Cline’s pursuit not through the ancient texts, but through an email.
He sent the email.
Back in March, he wrote to tell me that he was contesting a $50 ticket he had gotten the month prior for not moving his car on a street-cleaning day because there was no street cleaning. It had been suspended for the winter.
Cline felt the fact that they still ticketed was profoundly unfair. And, as he put it in his email, “It violates the social contract between citizens and the government for providing this service.”
Nor did he appreciate the menacing language on the ticket, which threatened a warrant for his arrest if he failed to pay it.
My initial thought: Yeah, good luck with that.
Now, I know Cline a little because, by profession, he’s a GIS specialist and has helped TheBurg create a few maps over the years. But his email was long, with many rambling questions, and while I meant to circle back to it when I had more time, I forgot all about it.
That is, until I got his second email.
This one came a week or so later, and, in it, he told me that he had pleaded not guilty and would have his day in court.
“I will be fighting the street cleaning ticket on the premise that street cleaning was not conducted, therefore my vehicle is not guilty of obstructing Capital Region Water’s ability to clean the streets,” he wrote.
“Fool,” I thought, and arrogantly chuckled to myself. Again, I failed to respond, this time more purposefully, thinking I wanted no part of this sinking ship.
So, at this point, I should explain for readers the labyrinthine system that is Harrisburg street cleaning.
Cline is correct that Capital Region Water (CRW) conducts the actual work and, indeed, with good reason—to keep drains clear and to minimize the gunk and garbage that flows into the Susquehanna River during rains.
Ticketing, however, is out of CRW’s hands. Parking enforcement vendor SP+ (aka Park Harrisburg) doles out the citations, enforcing regulations set by the city of Harrisburg. So, here we have three entities—CRW, SP+ and the city—all with a hand in laying Cline low.
In part, that’s what makes his (and maybe your) problem so tough to solve. There’s no single point of contact and no obvious solution.
During the winter, CRW has to suspend street cleaning—it has no choice. However, that suspension makes no difference to SP+, which, under contract, must continue enforcing the rules as promulgated. And the city, due to its own contractual parking arrangements, can’t unilaterally change those rules.
Ah, the inescapable trap of street cleaning.
Only, in this case, there proved to be a way out.
In mid-April, Cline appeared before magisterial district Judge Barbara Pianka armed with a two-page, point-by-point takedown of the whole rotten system.
Pianka, he said, shut him up halfway through his opus and, with a bang of the gavel, dismissed the charge against him; he’s not entirely sure why. That’s when I got a third email.
“Just wanted to let you know I had my court date today and I won my case!” he wrote. “The police officer tried to use some fuzzy logic, but the judge threw out my charges, and [I] walked out without paying a penny.”
Finally, he had my attention.
Now, I’m not advising you not to pay your street-cleaning ticket. I would have, but, then again, I’m probably more Ned Flanders than Karen Silkwood.
Nonetheless, Harrisburg, I present to you a hero for our times—a man who saw some snow on a dirty Midtown street and then saw his car and saw a ticket stuck in the wiper of his car and got mad. He fought the law, and he won.
About two weeks later, I received a final email from Cline. Heady with sweet victory, he was taking his battle to the next level.
He filed a right-to-know request with the state, yet another player in Harrisburg’s ridiculously complex parking system, and after that was rejected, he did the same with the city.
“I had success with my right to know request through the city,” he wrote to me, just as this column was going to press. “I have 15 months of street cleaning ticketing data!”
Stay tuned, readers. Cline has data, and he knows how to use it.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg