CITY HALL — It wasn't quite walking the plank, but Lincoln Towing — once dubbed the "Lincoln Park Pirates" in a famous song — faced stiff criticism from irate aldermen and city residents Tuesday in a City Council hearing.
The joint meeting of the License and Public Safety committees took no action, acknowledging that towing services remain largely under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which is already investigating Lincoln Towing. Yet it offered considerable criticism of the infamous company from aldermen and towed auto owners.
"They're bad guys," said Abby Amey, a former Chicago resident who now lives in the suburbs — in part, she said, to get away from Lincoln Towing after she said her car was wrongly towed.
But a lawyer representing Lincoln Towing — in some of the first public comments from the company as criticism mounted recently — denied the number of complaints against his client was out of line and said the company was being unfairly maligned.
The lawyer, Allen Perl, even went as far as to claim he was being bullied by Ald. Ameya Pawar, who called the hearing and had demanded the company defend its actions.
"You're actually bullying me," Perl said.
Perl's comments came after several people gave horror stories about their experiences being towed.
William Rankin, 82, said he periodically helps his neighbors by allowing them to park in the lot he owns. Two winters ago, "we had over a foot of snow and zero-degree temperatures," so he allowed his neighbor Barney, who is in his 70s and suffering from heart problems and cancer to park in the lot, he said.
"Lincoln Towing took his car, so Barney had to take two buses in zero-degree weather and pay $200 so he could get his old Pontiac and go to his therapy. That’s not funny," he said. "Barney has to go weekly for treatment. It keeps him alive."
Amey testified that her car was towed from a lot, even though it had an authorization sticker. When she tried to reclaim the car, she said, a foul-mouthed cashier at the Lincoln Towing lot, 4882 N. Clark St., refused to believe her story. When Amey paid the towing fee, got her car and then pointed the sticker out to the Lincoln worker, he said she might have put it on after getting the car.
Amey testified that the Illinois Commerce Commission was unresponsive — a familiar complaint during the two-hour-plus hearing — and that she had to file a civil suit to regain the money, eventually winning $1,500 in penalties as well.
"This was my life for two years," Amey said.
"They shouldn't be in business," she added. "They need to be shut down."
Similar complaints were repeated, with others saying Chicago Police also tended to refer complaints to the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Pawar (47th), lead sponsor of a resolution calling on the Lincoln Towing to "testify on their towing practices and policies," called the firm a "bad operator." Pawar, whose ward includes the Lincoln Towing lot, has led the recent battle that has been brewing for decades over allegations of strong-arm tactics and illegal towing.
The "Lincoln Park Pirates" were a favorite target of Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, and inspired a sea chantey of the same name by Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman more than 40 years ago.
Pawar said afterward he was satisfied with the hearing, calling it "just a first step," and that it should lead to him introducing an ordinance establishing a "towing bill of rights."
"This isn't just about Lincoln Towing," he said. "They're obviously the worst actor. But I think this should apply universally, across the board. This is about consumer protection, that's all."
Pawar added that his towing bill of rights would also call for considerate care of customers, saying, "People don't deserve to be abused just because they parked illegally."
Yet that was after he clashed with Perl.
Perl testified that he represented Protective Parking Services, which he said has owned the controversial company since 1993. He declined to give the name of that company's owner.
"I'm not sure what relevance it has today," Perl said of the firm's past reputation. "Don't cite the Lincoln Park song to me. That doesn't mean anything to me. It doesn't mean anything to my client."
Perl insisted the ICC had found 92 valid complaints, with the company towing 20,000 cars a year — a complaint rate of 0.4 percent.
"We haven't had those complaints made with us," Perl said. He said Amey's complaint had been resolved.
Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, suggested the city had registered 3,891 complaints against Lincoln Towing over the past two years. He also criticized the company's rough ways of doing business.
"It's not very inviting when you go in there," he said of the Lincoln Towing lot with its bulletproof cashier windows. "It's not very nice, not very nice."
Perl argued the bulletproof glass was to protect cashiers from potentially irate drivers, not the other way around.
Perl pointedly said he had tried to confront Pawar with his set of data, but that Pawar had refused to return his phone calls.
Pawar said that was a conscious decision in order to get Lincoln Towing to attend the hearing. "Let's assume I'm the jerk here," he said, then challenged Perl to bring his records in, however extensive, to go "toe to toe" on complaints. He cited multiple cases handled by his own office and others covered by DNAinfo Chicago.
"If it's in DNAinfo, it must be true," Perl quipped back.
But then Perl claimed he and his company were being unfairly targeted in the hearing, and said the alderman was bringing up complaints that hadn't yet been proven in a court of law.
"Call yourself what you want," Perl said to Pawar. "You are actually bullying me because you have the ability to do it in this room. Not in a courtroom, but you do in this room. I'll take that, but I'm not going to sit here and have you tell me what I have to do when you won't listen to anything I have to say."
On the South Side, Bridgeport-based Rendered Services faces a similar ICC probe, but William Nestos, who said he represented the firm's North Side operations, testified that he was a competitor with Lincoln Towing and then piled on.
Nestos said his firm uses dashcam video, at a cost of $685 a truck, to document its operations. While he granted that his firm had received 963 city complaints over the last two years, he compared that with the 3,891 registered against Lincoln. Nestos said Rendered Services had towed 50,000 cars over that time, for a complaint rate of less than 1 percent.
Nestos expressed sympathy with Amey and others who complained, saying, "If you take a car that is rightfully parked, it is auto theft."
Pawar said he would look into requiring tow trucks to have dashcam video in the legislation he plans to submit within the next month.
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