Let’s face it. Jury duty can be a drag.
There’s missing work. There’s the sometimes excruciating testimony. There are the loooong delays while lawyers and judges haggle “outside the presence of the jury.”
But what really sticks in the craw of Pierce County jurors doesn’t happen inside the courtroom.
It’s the parking, or, more accurately, finding a place to leave the car for free while doing one’s civic duty.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Frank Cuthbertson recently said parking for jurors is the chief topic of complaints he handles.
The price of crossing the Tacoma Narrows bridge for jurors from Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula is not far behind, Cuthbertson said.
It’s an issue that’s reached the highest levels of county government, into the office of the Tacoma city manager, even to the halls of state government in Olympia.
What to do? Well, that’s tough.
“I’m not sure what the big answer is,” Cuthbertson said last month.
NOT ENOUGH SPOTS
At its essence, it’s a supply-and-demand problem.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, the busiest jury days of the week, 174 free parking spaces are available for jurors in and around the County-City Building in downtown Tacoma, including 60 spots made available only on those days in a lot near the jail. The rest of the week, 114 free spaces are available.
The average numbers of jurors called in each weekday are as follows, according to Superior Court administration: Monday, 203; Tuesday, 181; Wednesday, 180; Thursday, 146; Friday, 63.
Totally unfair to get $10 pay and have to pay $15 for parking. Stupid! Pierce County juror comment on Superior Court complaint form, Sept. 1, 2015
And that’s just the average.
On some Mondays and Tuesday, the number of jurors and potential jurors called in can swell to 250 or more, depending on the number of trials slated to begin that week and those already underway, said Connie Janiga, Pierce County jury coordinator.
Jury administrators were expecting 240 people to show up for a recent Monday pool, Janiga said.
Had they all showed up, nearly 70 would be without a free place to park. Paid parking lots around the County-City Building can run from $5 to $15 a day, which can add up for someone called to serve on a three-week trial.
As of Nov. 20, Superior Court administration had fielded 411 juror parking and/or toll complaints in 2015.
The News Tribune requested and received a sampling of those complaints.
One penned Sept. 2 summed up the sentiments of the rest fairly well.
Written in a cursive script that would make an elementary school teacher proud, the woman laid out her frustration.
“The parking situation for jurors is very difficult,” she wrote. “I would love to take the bus, but I live in an area (N.E. Tacoma) where the bus service is spotty, and I have to walk a considerable distance just to get to the bus stop.
“Once I got downtown, I would have to transfer or walk uphill to get to the courthouse. At age 68, this isn’t doable for me.
“Today, we didn’t have to report until 8:30 a.m., but I still came in at 7:30 a.m. so that I would be assured of getting a parking spot. As a widow on Social Security, I simply can’t afford to pay for parking.
“I’m very happy to do my civic duty, but does it have to be this hard?”
Someone else put it this way: “PARKING IS A COMPLETE JOKE!!!”
$25,000 The amount Superior Court officials think it would take annually to reimburse jurors for parking.
The majority of those complaining just wanted to vent, but 171 of them asked for reimbursement for either parking or tolls, records show.
The county has paid out more than $2,000 this year to reimburse those people, records show.
And jurors are not complaining just to Superior Court.
In June, state Sen. Jan Angel and state Reps. Jesse Young and Michelle Caldier sent a letter, on Legislature stationery, to Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and members of the County Council.
The subject: Tolls.
“Our offices have received numerous messages from citizens in the Gig Harbor area regarding the cost of the toll for crossing the Narrows Bridge to report for jury duty for Pierce County courts,” they wrote.
The lawmakers suggested the county find a way to cover the tolls of those who have to cross the bridge to do their civic duty.
Jurors currently receive a $10-per-day stipend and 58 cents per mile to commute to the courthouse and back home, with the mileage based on the juror’s home ZIP Code.
“We feel it would be appropriate to increase the mileage calculation for all Gig Harbor and surrounding area zip codes crossing the Narrows Bridge to include the current Good to Go toll fee plus mileage,” Angel, Young and Caldier wrote in their letter.
“This is an issue that should probably have been addressed years ago, but as the tolls keep increasing, this burden has become increasingly harder to bear.”
METERS MADE IT WORSE
The parking complaints increased when the city of Tacoma began metering street parking around the County-City Building in fall 2014, Cuthbertson said.
A two-hour limit meant jurors couldn’t just camp the family wagon on Tacoma Avenue South for seven hours.
Envoys from Superior Court twice were dispatched to City Hall to try to negotiate a solution, perhaps a moratorium on ticketing jurors.
Cuthbertson said he pointed out to city officials earlier this year that many Superior Court jurors are Tacoma residents.
As of Nov. 20, Pierce County Superior Court had received 411 juror parking and toll complaints. Of those, 171 people asked for and received reimbursements totaling $2,073.30, according to Superior Court administration.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax is unapologetic.
“I think it’s not the city’s responsibility to provide parking for jurors,” Broadnax told The News Tribune last month.
Businesses around the County-City Building need metered parking for their customers and clients, he said. It would not be fair to those constituents for jurors to tie up those spots all day, he said.
Broadnax pointed out that King County jurors summoned to duty at the courthouse in downtown Seattle are not reimbursed for parking.
“There’s nothing unusual in what we’re doing,” he said.
Still, Broadnax said, he’s willing to keep a dialogue going to try to find an equitable solution.
NEW BUILDING WOULD HAVE HELPED
So, what can be done?
Cuthbertson said he was banking on construction of a new county general services building on the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. That would have consolidated many county departments in one building, freeing up office and parking space in and around the County-City Building.
But voters rejected the proposal at the polls in November.
The judge lobbied the County Council during his budget proposal in October for increased funding for parking and toll reimbursement for jurors.
A pay-to-park lot near the County-City Building charges $5 per day. Maybe the county could work something out, Cuthbertson suggested.
He suggested $25,000 a year could cover parking costs for those who can’t find free spots.
“These are some of the best citizens in our community,” he told the council. “These are the folks who come in here and are willing to sacrifice their time for $10 per day, which will not pay for lunch, much less lunch and parking.
“I, personally, as a matter of principle, don’t think we should ask jurors to pay for their parking.”
The council responded by including $17,000 in the Superior Court budget to help reimburse people for toll costs.
So juror parking probably will remain a point of contention through 2016, no reasonable doubt about it.