During the first week of December 2011, I wrote Urban Politics # 316 saying that I, like Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, was outraged that people had to pay bills of $800 to get their cars back from Seattle towing companies. State law doesn’t limit what towing companies can charge to impound cars off private property, so I decided to see if the City could set a limit.
I and other Councilmembers asked the City Attorney’s Office if they believed Seattle could place limits on what towing companies charge. They indicated that Seattle should be able to regulate tow company rates from private property (the city contracts for tows off city streets after soliciting bids, thereby setting rates).
An interdepartmental team began work on this, involving Fleets and Administrative Services, and staff from the Mayor and Council.
STATE LEGISLATIVE SESSION
The state legislature began meeting at the start of 2012, and regulation of what towing companies can charge for impounds off private property was on the agenda. The first draft of a bill was introduced on January 12, so Seattle’s efforts shifted to the state legislature.
Bills proposed in the House and Senate originally would have preempted Seattle or other cities from setting local limits, and set limits higher than Seattle wanted. The House passed a bill introduced and amended by Representative Pollet that set a cap, but allowed cities to set a lower cap. The Senate bill would have preempted any local regulation, but didn’t come up for a floor vote.
The state legislature then met in two special sessions in April, but took no further action on the bill.
OUTREACH TO TOWING INDUSTRY
This cleared the way for Seattle to take up consideration of a bill. However, the State retains the ability to preempt any local law, so it is important to proceed with care. Seattle’s lobbying in the state legislature emphasized that for any Seattle law, there would be outreach to the towing industry to seek their input. It’s thus important to establish a clear record of seeking collaboration with the industry.
Mayor McGinn sent a letter to towing industry groups recently seeking their collaboration and meetings are scheduled to begin next week that I plan to monitor or attend. Earlier requests for information during the state session didn’t receive a response from towing companies, making it difficult to determine a reasonable fee.
Frustrated in trying to move legislation forward, I let the Mayor know that if he could not reach an agreement by the beginning of July with the towing industry, I intend to introduce legislation regulating the industry. I hope the towing industry will participate, and assist in developing a reasonable consumer protection law. Most companies don’t charge the kind of excessive rates that have received so much publicity; a towing regulatory law would reign in the bad actors.
I will look forward to finally seeing legislation introduced in July that can provide reasonable towing fees in Seattle.
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