PHILIPSBURG–“A blanket statement” is how Justice Minister Anna Richardson on Wednesday described a recent report issued by Ombudsman Gwendolein Mossel on government’s parking and towing policies in Philipsburg, also calling it “a bit remiss” and “a disadvantage to us as a country”.
The creation of a Philipsburg parking policy plan and a comprehensive towing policy with proper checks and balances were amongst the recommendations in the report. A short introductory video was also posted on the Ombudsman’s Office’s official Facebook and YouTube pages.
“I did receive a report the day before yesterday [Monday – Ed.] from the Ombudsman's Office. In conjunction I also see that they put out a video as well. I think it is a bit remiss that as a country, that these organisations, we didn’t have an opportunity to work together to address what we know, that even this minister has indicated, in press briefing, that this is a serious situation where car parking and towing, etcetera, is concerned,” said Richardson.
Richardson has recently been outspoken about illegal parking in Philipsburg and driving on Boardwalk Boulevard, and the Ombudsman’s report indicated that the Minister of Justice has “acknowledged the policy shortfalls and has ensured that improvements will take place moving forward.”
Richardson said she had scheduled a meeting with Mossel today, Thursday, to discuss the findings of the report, which she later told The Daily Herald she was taking “extremely seriously”.
The introductory video had been taken down from the Ombudsman’s Facebook page as of 7:00pm Wednesday, but was still available on its YouTube channel. Richardson said she had not requested that the Ombudsman remove the video.
Richardson accused Mossel of violating the principle of due care, claiming the video “publicly – in a rather unilateral, unsubtle and incomplete manner – addresses the findings in its report without first giving the Minister a fair chance to react to the report.”
However, this is not the first time the Ombudsman has issued a report on the parking and towing policies in Philipsburg, which are implemented by the St. Maarten Police Force KPSM. In fact, it had submitted a final report in January 2020, which was based on a citizen’s complaint in October 2018.
It must be noted that Richardson was not the Justice Minister at the time of the earlier report; the position was then held by her party colleague, now-Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI Egbert Doran.
“The Ombudsman concludes that propriety has not been observed in this case,” it was stated in the January report.
“The limited cooperation received from KPSM during the aforementioned investigation, as well as their response to the Final Report prompted the Ombudsman to look further into the actual towing policy of the OM [Prosecutor’s Office]/KPSM and the execution of same in practice,” said the Ombudsman in the most recent report.
“To throw a blanket statement out, as has been done, I think it is a disadvantage to us as a country. Nevertheless, I look forward to our communication for tomorrow and I look forward to us working together, to be able to bring St. Maarten in an organised manner and fashion,” said Richardson.
Despite the characterisation of being a blanket statement, the report cites individual cases as evidence to make its points.
For example, in its section about parking permits, it concluded that most parking facilities adjacent to businesses on Walther A. Nisbeth Road (Pondfill), Ch. E. Voges Street and Emmaplein are public property.
“This means that businesses (or an individual) will require a parking permit to ensure that the parking location remains exclusive for the business or individual.
“Devoid of that parking permit, all persons, whether patronising the services of the business or not, are by law allowed to park at that location, and towing would be in violation of the law. This also means that erecting parking barriers at these locations, effectively blocking off the public parking spaces, without a parking permit, is also in contravention of the law,” it was stated in the report.
However, the report implies that this is not the case in all instances, and calls for an adequate policy to be put in place.
In relation to towing policies, the service level agreements (SLAs) signed between two towing companies and police agreed to four conditions, namely: a fixed price for towing and storage of the vehicles; safe and proper storage location; liability insurance for damage, theft and/or destruction incurred to vehicles; issuance of a receipt.
“Based on recent discussions with representatives of both towing companies, it would appear that the towing policy nor the SLA are being lived up to in practice. PVs [police statements] containing the fines, for example, are seldom made up. Vehicles are usually towed under the direct instruction and supervision of an (on the scene) police officer, without a PV.
“Furthermore, according to one of the towing companies, they were unable to secure a liability insurance and as a result are not allowed to tow vehicles based on incorrect parking, only on the basis of violation of Article 80 of the road traffic ordinance. …
“Once vehicles are towed and transferred to the storage area, the person whose vehicle is towed should obtain a vehicle release form, after identifying themselves, from the KPSM and supply that form to the towing company along with the towing fee in order for their vehicle to be released.
“The entire towing fee goes to the towing company, i.e. government receives nothing. If the driver is not present when a fine is being written (PV) usually no fine is given to the driver. Ultimately, the driver/owner of the vehicle (generally) only pays for the towing fee. Noteworthy is that KPSM does not (consistently) keep a record or log of the vehicles that are towed,” it was stated in the report.
The entire report can be found on the Ombudsman’s website.
“If the Ombudsman had given the Minister the opportunity to officially respond to the report, it would have learned that the last few months the Minister, together with, among others, the Police (KPSM) and the ministry’s policy department (Judicial Affairs) already worked proactively on most if not all of the so-called recommendations of the Ombudsman,” said Richard in a press release on Wednesday.
“At this moment KPSM and the Ministry of VROMI are diligently working together to list the exact locations where additional and official no-parking signs should be placed in the centre of Philipsburg. On the basis of this list, the Minister will sign off a Ministerial Decree in order for the Ministry of VROMI to place these traffic signs.
“Furthermore, the Minister had already tasked a Department of Judicial Affairs to set up additional parking and towing policy on the basis of the National Traffic Ordinance, including clear procedural guidelines for the issuing of parking permits and the fining of putting up unauthorised no-parking signs by private parties.
“Collecting fines and other monetary penalties also has already been taken up by the Minister independently of the Ombudsman’s report and continues to be a joint spearhead of the Minister and the Prosecutor’s Office,” it was stated in the press release.