Detroit council approves reforms to city's controversial towing system

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a series of changes in a bid to boost transparency and accountability in the city's towing system.

City Council President Brenda Jones, who spearheaded the revisions, has noted that the towing ordinance amendments are aimed at "eliminating predatory practices" and "creating accountability within towing in the city of Detroit.” 

Among the changes adopted Tuesday: no more cash-only tow policies; towers can't tow vehicles absent the request of a public or private property owner and notification to Detroit Police Department; and all tow contracts will pass through "a public and transparen" bidding process.

The council's 6-0 vote came after years of controversy surrounding the city’s municipal towing operations and amid a federal probe that has entangled three council members this year and previously has resulted in criminal convictions of police officers who took bribes from towers. 

Tuesday's action is one of multiple initiatives to revamp Detroit's towing procedures.

From left, Detroit Councilman James Tate, Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and President Brenda Jones. The council voted 6-0 Tuesday in favor of towing ordinance amendments aimed at "eliminating predatory practices" and "creating accountability within towing in the city of Detroit.”

In August, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan asked Detroit Police Chief James White to recommend towing reforms one day after towing operations in the city and allegations of bribery emerged as the focus of a federal investigation that prompted raids at the homes of council members Janee Ayers and Scott Benson, some of their staff and at City Hall.

Duggan has vowed an overhaul for the towing system that he has said is "fraught with potential for abuse."

On Tuesday, Duggan described the amendments as "an important step in reforming the city's troubled towing process."

"We will now move on to the next steps to assure accountability and transparency in the towing procurement process," Duggan told The Detroit News. 

The federal investigation, "Operation Northern Hook," has resulted in a guilty plea from former longtime member Andre Spivey on a charge of accepting bribes from a contractor. He resigned his council post last month.

More:André Spivey resigns from Detroit City Council after pleading guilty to bribery

Ayers, Benson and their staffers have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Ayers was absent from Tuesday's meeting. Benson voted in support of the towing ordinance amendments alongside his colleagues. Benson told The Detroit News that the ordinance amendments came through the council's Public Health and Safety committee, which he chairs, and that he helped shepherd them through. 

Both Benson and Ayers are running to retain their council seats on Nov. 2. 

More:Detroit Councilman Scott Benson says he does not 'engage in criminality'

More:Scandals plague two Detroit at-large council candidates as election looms

Benson noted Tuesday that the towing reforms are more "user-friendly," including the option to pay with credit cards rather than cash.

Unlike the past, he said, where "after they hooked you up, you had to watch your car drive away" to the tow yard, people can pay and stop the tow before it happens. 

Benson also said the new contracting process would "prioritize locals," and that the ordinance "strongly suggests" that towing companies establish a fee scale for low-income people. 

The councilman has declined to speak about the FBI raid at his home and City Hall offices, apart from telling The News last month that he doesn't "engage in criminality." Ayers has not publicly addressed the raids.

The city's auditor general has released multiple scathing reports through the years accusing tow companies of fleecing customers and maintaining questionable records, while accusing city and police officials of various towing-related infractions and oversights.

An auditor general report in 2011 found that towing contracts were being approved without council approval. Instead of shoring up the contract process, as the report recommended, the city that year began allowing towers to work under permits, which don't require as much documentation and scrutiny as contracts, and are not competitively bid.

The five-year towing permits were extended in 2016.

In April, the board extended the contracts a third time, a vote that was criticized by police officials who said they hadn't been notified about the extension.

Before to the 2016 extension, Detroit Police attorney and 2nd Deputy Chief Celia Washington admitted to taking a $3,000 bribe from towing magnate Gasper Fiore to help him get another permit and bypass rules that prohibited tow company owners from having more than one firm in the towing rotation. Washington was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

In 2017, six Detroit police officers were federally indicted for taking bribes from towers seeking more rotation spots. All six were later convicted.

The towing law amendment notes "for the avoidance of doubt," the city's Board of Police Commissioners won't “conduct or supervise the procurement of police authorized towers.”

“Consistent with standard city practice, police authorized towers shall be engaged via contracts, not permits,” it reads. 

Rather, the process will be conducted and supervised by the city’s Office of Contract Procurement. Those contracts shall be approved by the city’s chief procurement officer, Detroit’s top attorney and the council. 

Jones, during a Monday subcommittee session and public hearing on the towing amendments, stressed the goal of the changes is to "protect everyone."

“I continue to work with the towers. Even me being on council, even me being president, I am still a citizen in the city of Detroit and guess what, my car can be towed too,” Jones said Monday.

Julie Semma from Seven D's Towing was among those to call in to provide comment during Monday's public hearing on the ordinance changes Monday.

She shared concerns over a misdemeanor clause in the ordinance that she argues will "criminalize all towers."

"It's "unfair," Semma said. "We have been serving the city faithfully and adhering to all rules, policies and ordinances."

After Tuesday's vote, the Detroit Towing Association provided a statement on behalf of group President Barry Foster and Semma, a member.

"The Detroit Towing Association (DTA) made recommendations to further protect consumers that were not included in the towing ordinance," the statement reads. "While we have no control over city council members, we will move forward in working with the city and adhering to their policies and processes." 

Tuesday's vote followed a third reading of the ordinance and was approved without further discussion. After the vote, Jones thanked her colleagues, the city's police and Detroit Towers Association and all others who participated in the three-year process of getting the new rules drafted and adopted.

"It truly was a give and take on behalf of a lot of people," Jones said Tuesday. "It was a lot of negotiation, it was a lot of time spent on doing this."

jdickson@detroitnews.com