Garcia: Muni’s payment monitors are too gung-ho 

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency has never been able to get its streetcars and buses close to mandated performance schedules. It runs a searing fiscal deficit each year. And it wants to deal with its swelling sea of red ink by reaching into the pockets of local citizens by raising parking garage rates and towing fees.

But there’s one thing the people who run Muni seem to be getting better at — nabbing hardened lawbreakers and bringing them to justice. Watch out for the members of the agency’s proof-of-payment patrol — they’re writing the hottest tickets in town.

I know this because a few members of their elite unit managed to corral a small group of 14- and 15-year-old girls recently, interrogated them in the freezing cold, and then, without so much as a warning, wrote them all traffic citations for either having a recently expired transfer, or none at all. And in the process they managed to cast light on some problems with the payment control officers, such as a lack of decorum, judgment and training.

Far be it for me to defend fare evaders, and certainly it seems clear that Muni can ill afford any type of free ride. But I think that a distinction can be made between chronic offenders and those of relative innocence — a distinction born of circumstance and common sense.

Yet as I discovered this week when I had to trudge down to the municipal courthouse with one of the alleged scofflaws — my ninth-grade daughter Laura — and listened as a judge read her traffic violation and asked her how did she plead, I realized that Muni’s fare system doesn’t always seem so fair.

Here’s the scenario: A group of girls travel to school on a bus, then to soccer practice, and then re-board, thinking that their transfers are all neat and accounted for. Except two of the girls left their tickets in their backpacks at school, rather than the athletic bags that they were carrying when they got back on the bus. And one girl’s transfer expired by the time they reached their destination — or at least when they ran into the Starsky and Hutch of ticket officers.

The girls were a bit mortified when they made this discovery, one breaking into tears. And how was this delicate situation handled? With interrogations and a repeated request that the girl stop sobbing.

Don’t get me wrong. It appears that they were in the wrong as officially posted. But it wouldn’t take a graduate student to figure out that this might be a case where a warning would serve as strongly as a citation. After all, these weren’t the turnstile-jumping, emergency-gate-opening types that plague Muni on a regular basis, and the whole issue could have been handled with a request for payment. Yet what’s clear is that Muni is hiring people who lack a certain sense of, say, the moment. They’re there to write tickets, no questions asked.

I add that last point with some emphasis, because my daughter, taught to question authority, did so up to the point where she was pointedly told by one of the proof-of-payment officials to stop asking questions. And this is not to portray her as wholly angelic — after all, her main objection to girls’ lacrosse is that she can’t hit anybody.

"At the end of the day, it’s one of those hard questions — who should be given a ticket and who shouldn’t,’’ Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch said. "But the officers can’t be judge and jury out there.’’

But perhaps Muni needs to do a better job of selecting who makes those decisions. As it turns out, many of the proof-of-payment officers are former members of TURF, the at-risk youth group created under former Mayor Willie Brown to help provide security on Treasure Island, at public housing projects and on Muni.

Yet that group ran into trouble at every agency it worked for, engaging in what was called "undesirable activity.’’ And while we can applaud job programs for the underprivileged, giving individuals proper training is a must — especially if they take on some level of quasi-police authority. The rent-a-cop syndrome among the Muni officers has been duly noted through a number of public complaints.

Thankfully, in Laura’s case, a judge put it all to rest. When I made a joke about bad parenting in the courtroom, hearing officer Adrienne Jacobs Miller adroitly countered, "No, it’s not about that. Things just happen with teenagers.’’

Miller was kind and intelligent and thankfully nonjudgmental. A three-hour life management skills class awaits Laura, all for the price of a Fast Pass. But as far as future officer training, will Muni get on board?

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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