Greg Stump
Randy Leonard is poised to become the city's most popular council member--and all it took was standing up to the towing companies. For the past several months, the newest member of city council has been hammering together a plan to curb fees and practices for local tow truck operators. Under the new rules, those companies won't be allowed to charge more than $160 for a tow from a private-property lot. (Currently the average price is anywhere from $234 to as high as $400.) In addition, so-called "predatory towing"--where tow trucks lie in wait for their victims--will be stopped.

On Tuesday, Leonard marked his first anniversary at city hall (he was voted in last November to fill the seat vacated by Charlie Hales). The next evening, the city hosted its first public airing of the towing regulation proposal. The issue has been simmering since January, but now, with a city council vote imminent, the issue seems finally ready to boil over. Under the proposed rules, not only would towing charges be limited, but companies would be required to provide transportation to a person whose car is towed. One common complaint is that they leave victims stranded. Also, tow companies would be required to take credit cards. Many tow companies currently operate on a cash-only basis--a practice that prevents many low-income residents from retrieving their cars.

The new rules would also ban kickbacks to restaurants and parking lot owners. Under the current no-holds-barred protocol, a business may contract with an individual towing company to patrol its parking lot. In return, for each tow, the business or parking lot owner receives a portion of the towing fees.

At Wednesday's meeting, tow-truck drivers loudly complained that the new rules would destroy them. On the other side of the aisle, residents likened the tow trucks to insatiable sharks. One woman said she recently had stopped at her mother's house for a brief errand. While running into the house, she left her car parked in a private lot with her two young kids inside. After returning a few minutes later, a tow truck was hitching up her car's bumper and preparing to take the car away--she claims with the kids still inside.

Like most urban areas, parking is often considered an apt indicator of quality of life. Yet while other cities, from New York to San Francisco, have put regulations in place over the past few years, towing companies in Portland have remained unchecked. Some companies are even allowed to charge "temper fees," where an additional $50 is tacked on if an upset owner swears at the tow truck driver. (Those would also be banned under the new rules.)

The ordinance proposed by Leonard is directed only at tows from private lots. Each month there are roughly 200 tows from private property--about one-tenth the number towed from public property or mandated by police. Even so, those 200 tows reportedly generate the most complaints for the city's towing office--an indication of how vexing these practices can be.

Testifying at Wednesday's meeting that insurance costs are soaring and that trucks cost upwards of $75,000, tow owners said they would have to make severe employment cuts.

The new regulations may go for a vote in city council as early as next Wednesday, November 19. Fan mail for Leonard is being accepted at: randy@ci.portland.or.us. Comments about the proposed changes can be directed to: Marian Gaylord, the city's towing coordinator, 823-5146.