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Heard every excuse? Ticket officer listens to them for a living

For parking ticket hearing officer Dan McNair, the parade of baldfaced lies, lame excuses and feigned ignorance begins every morning at 8 o'clock.

After nearly four years on the job, McNair is sure he's heard most would-be meter-beaters' pitches. But it is that rarer tale, spiced with humor if not honesty, that becomes the stuff of treasured anecdote."We had a `blind man' come in on a ticket and his excuse was that he couldn't see the meter," McNair said. "Of course, he apparently could see well enough to parallel park."

Or, how about the pizza delivery man ticketed for parking in front of a fire hydrant?

"He said he had to get the pizza delivered quickly - but he checked first to make sure there wasn't a fire," McNair said. "Thoughtful of him."

Assigned to visit a downtown museum, an art student was accidentally locked in by the lunching staff. She called police and was freed - just in time to find her meter expired and a ticket on the windshield.

"That's one of my favorites," McNair said. "I let her off."

Most of the 100 or so excuses fielded during a typical day in McNair's second-floor cubicle at the Salt Lake City-County Building are more pedestrian: an interview gone too long, being "just a minute" late to plug a meter, or a young driver hiding accumulated citations from parents.

McNair has authority to let stand, reduce or void the citations that annually generate $1.7 million for Salt Lake City.

"I determine if the ticket is valid or not, and if it's not, I dismiss it. Or if a no-parking sign is buried behind a tree, I'll go out and see if I can see it, and if I can't, I'll dismiss it," he said.

About half of those who appear before McNair at least get their fines reduced - compensation for not seeing a sign, having mechanical problems or some other compelling excuse.

Parking infractions account for about $500,000 a year at the University of Utah, where Leon Bills has worked six years hearing appeals.

"It's always somebody else's fault," he said. "Most of the time, it's pretty much the same thing, you know: `I was only 10 minutes late' or whatever."

Still, in at least one case, Bills was surprised by where the finger of blame was pointed. "I had one guy who told me that while he parked at a meter, aliens flew over, took him away for a ride and when he got back, the meter was expired," he recalled. "He told me that with a straight face."

No sale.

But Bills did void the ticket given an elderly woman cited at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center while visiting her ailing husband. Her visitor's permit had run out.

"She said, `I thought my husband would expire before the permit did.' It was a $10 ticket, and she was up visiting her husband. I let her off."

McNair, who took the job after retiring from a 24-year career as a Salt Lake police officer, had seen his share of desperate criminals. So he's continually amazed at the range of emotion evoked by a $15 parking ticket.

Some appellants are penitent, others disingenuous or outright disreputable; some are enraged.

"We get angry people, angry when they come in and angry when they leave, too," said McNair, who has security officers just seconds away. "No one's hit me yet.

"I try to work with them," McNair said. "I treat everybody the same. It's a honey vs. vinegar thing. My job is to try to work out an equitable solution."

Bills, too, has avoided blows, but not the screaming epithets and temper tantrums of dissatisfied appellants.

"I've been lucky - knock on wood - no one has actually hit me. But we've had some escorted out (by police)."