Towing industry faces regulation in Gresham
City councilors hope ordinance can prevent predatory tows
The wedge of land where the Springwater Trail changes from pavement to gravel off Telford Road and 267th Avenue is downright pastoral.
Horses graze. Families on bikes roll by. Lawnmowers and tractors sound in the background.
It's the last place you'd expect to have your car towed.
But that's exactly what happened last year to Damascus resident John Tidswell, a math teacher at Centennial Middle School. He returned to his 1989 Toyota pickup after a bike ride with his wife and two daughters only to discover his truck was gone.
In what is referred to in the towing trade as a private-property tow, a private property owner just south of where Tidswell parked his car requested the tow.
The truck was blocking the property owner's driveway, according to the tow order. However, land where the truck was parked is actually owned by the city of Portland, and Tidswell insists his vehicle was not blocking the driveway.
It's just one example of many towing complaints heard by Gresham city councilors Paul Warr-King and David Widmark.
Now - much like they spearheaded payday-loan regulations that were approved at the city and state level this spring - the duo have teamed up to put some traction into Gresham's towing regulations.
Towing ordinance expected
The Gresham City Council is expected on Tuesday, Dec. 5, to approve a towing ordinance based on Portland's that would go into effect on April 1, 2007. Details, such as set fees and charges, are to be determined during the interim.
'We have nothing,' Widmark said of the city's existing towing standards. With the exception of the police department, which contracts with 11 tow companies on a rotating basis to tow disabled and abandoned vehicles, there are no industry regulations.
'We need to protect our citizens and not allow this type of gouging. Everybody is subject to this type of act,' he added, noting that apartment residents are especially vulnerable.
Small apartment complex parking lots have resulted in permit programs in which residents receive parking permits, plus some for visitors. No permit, or if a car isn't in its permitted parking space, and the vehicle is towed.
'If you have a car, you live in an apartment, you have this potential problem,' Widmark said.
Warr-King heard from a Gresham resident who parked his car in his wife's parking spot while picking up their children. In just a few minutes his car was towed, leading Warr-King to believe some apartment managers may be in cahoots with tow truck drivers. The vehicle's owner ended up paying $300 to get his car back.
Melinda Hucke, who fields towing complaints for the police department, received a call from a resident whose car was towed from private property. Because Gresham has no tow fee regulations, he was billed $500 for the tow and one day of storage, she said.
Towing sparks outrage
Perhaps the most egregious example of such predatory towing practices is that of Lajuana Andersen. Within two days of moving into a Gresham apartment complex in March, Dinky's Towing hauled off her 1986 Subaru.
The car was legally parked and its parking permit was clearly visible. Adding another layer of mystery to the tow, Dinky's Towing did not have a contract with the apartment complex's property management company to tow vehicles from the lot.
Faced with an $800 bill, Lajuana was left to care for two children with no wheels for 39 days. Dinky's released the vehicle at no charge on April 21.
'Essentially Dinky Towing stole the car,' said Steve Andersen, Lajuana's husband.
Dinky's Towing owners Deborah and Dan Closser Sr., scoff at the idea.
'Why would I want to steal an '86 Subaru?' Dan Closser said.
The Clossers say they're being unfairly blamed for the tow - the publicity of which they said caused more than 30 death threats to come their way.
Deborah Closser said the Subaru was registered in Lajuana's husband's name, requiring a notarized statement from him for its release. Plus the couple didn't have proof they were still married, Deborah Closser said.
Dan Closser blamed the incident on the apartment complex, which changed ownership companies in December 2005. He said the former owners had a towing contract with Dinky's, adding that the contract requires the complex to notify Dinky's of changes in property management or ownership.
Tow companies blame property owners
'I think the tow companies are constantly getting the shaft by property management companies not notifying them of changes,' Dan Closser said. 'Then it's the big bad towing industry.'
Dan Closser refused to provide a copy of the alleged contract, citing advice from his attorney. The former property owner also has reportedly denied having such a contract with the Clossers.
As for Gresham's new ordinance, Deborah Closser said, 'I think that's fine,' adding that Portland has had one for a long time.
Dan Closser also supports regulations for the towing industry.
'As long as they're fair on our rates,' he said, explaining that skyrocketing gas prices should be taken into consideration.
Dave Lucky, who with his wife, Rita, own Gresham Towing - the same company caught in the dispute over Tidswell's tow - said if Gresham regulates towing, tow truck drivers could just take their business elsewhere.
He used to tow in Portland until the city created new rules - rules Lucky says haven't solved the problems.
'I don't doubt those people are being cheated like that,' Lucky said, regarding cases such as the Andersens. But he said if apartment complex managers were required to sign for a tow, it would eliminate three-quarters of the problems.
Lucky calls towers like the Clossens 'bad apples' that Gresham has to get rid of. He's just afraid the process could price honest towers out of business.
'You can't hardly tow a car for less than a few hundred dollars,' Lucky said, adding that industry regulations are a headache for towers with integrity. 'They are being penalized for what those few bad guys are doing out there.'
Ordinance could shift problem
Widmark does fear that possible changes to Gresham's ordinance could drive unscrupulous towers to cities such as Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village.
After all, Portland's stricter regulations may have forced unscrupulous tow truck drivers east to Gresham, said Marian Gaylord, Portland's towing coordinator.
John Tidswell, whose pickup was towed last summer, said Gresham needs stricter standards to prevent those so-called bad apples from falling in East Multnomah County.
First, there's the inconvenience of falling victim to an unethical tow. After his truck was towed, Tidswell had to leave his wife and daughters, then ages 9 and 15, behind while he biked home to get another vehicle.
Second, there's the expense.
After examining Tidswell's case, the city of Portland Bureau of Licenses ordered Gresham Towing to reimburse Tidswell for half of his $241 tow bill.
A year-and-a-half later, he's still waiting for the reimbursement because Dave Lucky, the owner of Gresham Towing, refuses to pay up.
'We didn't do anything wrong, and I'm not going to pay him,' Lucky said.
Gaylord, Portland's towing co-ordinator, said Gresham Towing is simply ignoring the order, and she's powerless to enforce it because Gresham Towing has no Portland towing permit for her to revoke.
Tidswell would just like to see the matter cleared up. But that would require a lawsuit in small claims court, a move he's not yet willing to make.
For now, he's just thrilled Gresham is doing something to regulate the towing industry.
'This affects not only my family but also previous people who have been towed and potentially others in the future who may be easy targets by this particular tower,' Tidswell said. 'I'm not looking to make money through a lawsuit. I would just like to have my money returned.'
Towing ordinance highlights
• Requires tow companies that conduct private property tows to apply for a special permit, allowing the city to regulate such tows.
• Sets fees for specific services to avoid gouging.
• Audits of tow bills to monitor fees.
• Creates penalties of as much as $500 for getting kickbacks or being in collusion with tow truck companies or drivers, or for poaching by parking within 1,000 feet of a private parking facility to observe.
• Requires signs be posted in tow areas.
• Requires tow companies to accept credit or debit card payments. This would eliminate the need for customers with no car to make yet another trip to an ATM for cash. Such trips take time away from a four-hour grace period outlined in contracts the Gresham Police Department has with 11 tow companies on a rotating basis.
• Creates an appeals process for tow companies who disagree with a fine.
• Allows the city to suspend or revoke permits of towers who engage in predatory business practices.
If you go
What: Gresham City Councilors are scheduled to approve a towing ordinance that would apply to companies that tow vehicles from private property, such as apartment complexes and homes.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5.
Where: Gresham City Hall Council Chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway.
Details: The proposed ordinance is designed to regulate and prevent predatory business practices in the towing and impound industry.