This story was written by Globe correspondents Colin A. Young, Gail Waterhouse, Sarah Moomaw, and Walter V. Robinson.
In 2008, Petit Robert was in the cross hairs of Patricia A. Malone, the director of the city’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Licensing.
The South End bistro had three recent citations for violating Boston’s exacting valet parking rules, the most recent for double-parking cars and tying up traffic along Columbus Avenue. And restaurant managers, she wrote, did not attend her hearing.
In a scalding decision, Malone declared the violations unacceptable, the failure to appear troubling, the evidence that Petit Robert was mending its ways nonexistent. A “serious sanction’’ was being imposed:
Petit Robert, where patrons go for fine dining, was barred from providing entertainment for two nights, which meant that the 30-inch television over its tiny bar and the background music were turned off.
When the City of Boston acts on valet parking violations, though it seldom does, the official flogging is most often done with feathers: That blank television screen is among the most serious penalties the city has imposed.
This may explain why reporters observed wholesale violations outside restaurants in the city’s busiest restaurant districts between September and November.
On some weekend nights along Tremont Street in the South End and Boylston Street in the Back Bay, traffic often moves at a crawl, thanks to long queues of empty, double-parked cars outside busy restaurants.
Valet parkers, the Globe found, pay little heed to the requirement that arriving cars be quickly moved to garages or lots. They routinely ignore regulations that forbid double parking and taking up metered spaces. Some grab resident parking spots and even handicapped parking to squirrel away cars belonging to diners. Such violations make it even more difficult for local residents to negotiate already congested streets and park their cars.
And the companies ignore the rules with relative impunity: Indeed, when a City Valet employee working at Umbria on Franklin Street threatened to kill a traffic enforcement officer in 2007, the city listed the incident as “disrespectful behavior.’’ And the sanction for Umbria? “Probation’’ for six months, though there is no record city officials ever checked up on the restaurant.
In response to the Globe’s findings, Boston’s transportation commissioner, Thomas J. Tinlin, said recently that he has put together teams of police officers and traffic enforcement officers to target valet scofflaws during peak dinner hours. The crackdown began Dec. 15.
To be sure, playing by the rules in congested neighborhoods like the South End is no easy feat. Some restaurants use parking lots that are blocks away, and valet parkers sprint back and forth to park and retrieve cars. Inevitably, the crush of arriving cars at peak hours means some cars will be temporarily double-parked, although the Globe observed that the rules were ignored at many restaurants even when business was light.
For city officials, policing valet parking is an unpalatable and unwelcome task. The restaurant industry is important to the city’s vibrancy and economy and a favorite of Mayor Thomas M. Menino. And valet parking is a critical lure for suburban diners.
The importance of the restaurant business, said Tinlin, argues for the use of a scalpel, not a chainsaw. “We’re looking to change behavior at the curb,’’ he said. “We do not want to have a bunch of shuttered storefronts.’’
In addition, regulators face a quandary when they mete out sanctions: The restaurant holds the valet license and therefore faces the consequences. Yet it is the valet companies they hire that break the rules.
Then there is the enforcement muddle. Three agencies have at least some jurisdiction over valet parking, but no one embraces it. Tinlin’s Transportation Department created the regulations, oversees licensing, and has the power to suspend or revoke the licenses.
But Daniel R. Nuzzo, the Transportation Department official who oversees valet licensing, said that when he is alerted to violations, he prefers to call restaurant owners and scold them politely and privately, which means there are no records.
That leaves Malone’s office and the Boston Licensing Board. Malone’s power is limited to regulating behavior at establishments that hold entertainment licenses, which are important mainly to nightclubs. Shutting off the television at Petit Robert was about all she could do.
The Licensing Board oversees behavior by businesses with liquor licenses. When it comes to double-parked cars and the like, the Licensing Board has long issued only warnings for valet infractions and forwarded second offenses for action to the Transportation Department. For the department, that translates into a handful of “behave yourself’’ letters from Nuzzo over the years, according to its records.
Nuzzo said the city’s regulations “are a lot more stringent than they need to be.’’
Sometimes both Malone’s office and the Licensing Board will hold hearings on the same violation, because they have overlapping responsibilities and, Malone said, have a long history of not talking to one another.
The Transportation Department oversees 136 valet licenses, renewable annually. About 100 of those are for restaurants - and some nightclubs - the vast majority of which are in the Back Bay, South End, downtown, and North End. Almost all of the rest are issued to hotels, large condominium buildings, and hospitals.
One reason for the widespread violations observed by the Globe: Few of the city’s traffic enforcement officers work the dinner hour or weekends. And the dozen or so police citations written every year that lead to hearings are mostly handed out during the middle of the week.
That is about to change. Tinlin said in an interview that his office has not provided adequate oversight of valet parking.
“We had left enforcement to the Boston Police Department,’’ Tinlin said. “This needs to be enforced and regulated by us. We’re looking to take some immediate steps, and that includes monitoring valet parking and holding people accountable.’’
While responding to questions raised by the Globe, Tinlin said he found another problem, that a division within his department has been inappropriately awarding long-running temporary valet permits to some restaurants, without the formal review that is required. He said he has ordered a stop to that.
One of those lapses, Tinlin said, was especially embarrassing. In April 2008, after both police and fire officials raised concerns, Nuzzo declined to renew an annual valet parking permit for the Gypsy Bar on Boylston Street. For the next two years, Boston Valet, the bar’s parking contractor, continued its valet service at the site by getting regular temporary valet permits from another department within Tinlin’s agency, the Engineering Division.
Tinlin said neither he nor Nuzzo was aware of the back-door permitting in their own agency.
Matt Cahill - the director of the Boston Finance Commission, a state-appointed watchdog agency - said that it is important for Menino to order an audit of the valet permitting process and its revenues to rule out wrongdoing.
The department’s oversight is further limited because neither of the other two agencies notifies the Transportation Department in advance of hearings on valet citations, according to Tinlin. What’s more, the department does not have records of many hearings conducted by Malone.
City officials insisted that political influence has played no role in the tepid enforcement of valet regulations. A Globe analysis of campaign finance records found that the principals of many of the establishments and of the valet firms have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Menino since 2005.
In separate interviews, both Tinlin and Nuzzo asserted that even occasional enforcement actions, coupled with verbal warnings, have prompted increased compliance by the valet companies that contract to do the parking for restaurants and other businesses.
But that is apparently not the case at many restaurants. Take, for instance, Mistral Restaurant on Columbus Avenue, which was sanctioned in 2009 and 2010 for its valets’ disregard for the regulations.
Over a two-hour period on a Friday evening last month, Ultimate Parking employees at Mistral left patrons’ cars in the four curbside valet spots for extended periods. The city’s regulations require that cars be moved to off-street parking facilities within 10 minutes, so that other cars do not come along and double-park.
On three different dates this fall, reporters found that curbside spaces at 23 restaurants - and several hotels, too - were being regularly used for extended parking. That can save the valet companies the cost of off-street parking, make life easier for valets, and boost tips from appreciative patrons when they leave.
Over a two-hour period on Friday, Nov. 4, the valets at Mistral left two or three cars double-parked for long periods of time. At one point, a Lexus sport utility vehicle arrived, the driver exited, hugged the valet, and went into the restaurant. Minutes later, the valet did a U-turn and parked the Lexus at a meter across the street. The garage used by Mistral valets is less than 500 feet away.
Josh Lemay is the director of Operations for Ultimate Parking, which has contracts with about 70 percent of the licensed restaurants in Boston. In an interview, Lemay said his supervisors are on the street nightly to make sure its valets are following the rules, which, he said, they do.
If a valet at Mistral were caught commandeering a meter, he said, he would be fired.
That is precisely what Andrea McDonough of Concord said Ultimate told her last year after its valet at Mistral stashed her new BMW behind the restaurant, where it was broken into.
“The valet company apologized and said the guy was fired, and a week later I saw him working there,’’ McDonough said in an interview. “They just told me what they thought I wanted to hear.’’
Michael J. McCormack, whose law firm represents Ultimate, said the company opted instead for a one-week suspension because the valet had worked for Ultimate for 12 years and, McCormack said, was juggling two jobs to support his family.
Sometimes, the double-parking results from understaffing by valet companies.
On narrow Appleton Street in the South End on Nov. 4, it was barely possible for a car, much less a firetruck, to squeeze past the row of seven double-parked cars in front of two restaurants, 28 Degrees and Noche.
Both restaurants share curbside valet space, where two other cars were illegally parked.
One of the two harried valet parkers said that Ultimate Parking had not assigned enough employees that evening.
Then, instead of moving one of the double-parked cars, the valet crossed the street to move a Chevrolet Corvette he had left in a handicapped parking space.
Lemay said the problem occurred because one of the two restaurants had a large group arrive for a function at the same time. He said Ultimate sent in extra help later that evening to clear up the backlog.
At Joe’s American Bar and Grill on Newbury Street, the curbside spaces were all taken, in violation of the rules, and an SUV was double-parked. Eventually, one of the valets parked the SUV in a metered spot.
Minutes later, two people got into their car at another metered space and drove off, leaving the two valets with another chance to break the rules. “It’s like Christmas,’’ one valet said.
The violations are not confined to restaurants. Several hotels that have valet licenses, including the Ritz Carlton and the Mandarin Oriental, often keep cars at curbside spaces for hours.
Many of the restaurants and their valet operators, who pay little heed to the regulations, are major contributors to Menino. For example, Umbria owner Frank DePasquale and his wife have donated $3,500 to the mayor since 2005.
Officers of Ultimate Valet, whose market share has grown so large that it now parks a half million cars a year in the city and employs as many as 800 workers, have also been regular contributors. Andrew Tuchler, the company’s founder, and his wife have donated $3,500. Other employees have given at least $4,750 more since 2005.
Officers and employees at Jillian’s, a club near Fenway Park, have contributed at least $8,000 to Menino since 2005. The corporation that owns Jillian’s also owns the Gypsy Bar, which was able to secure temporary valet licenses after its permanent one was revoked.
Jillian’s appears to have escaped sanctions after its valet parkers were cited with three violations in 2009 and 2010. Malone, the licensing official, said in an interview that her policy is to issue a warning for a first offense, and suspend the entertainment license for one night for a second offense and for two nights for a third. But Jillian’s received only warnings, instead of a loss of entertainment privileges.
Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Menino, said the first two violations were heard by the Boston Licensing Board. When the third violation came before Malone last year, Malone knew of the prior two transgressions. But since she did not have the paperwork, Joyce said, “technically she had to treat it as a first offense.’’
Joyce said campaign donations “have nothing to do with the decision-making process’’ in any city department.
At Petit Robert, the owners still remember having to shut off the small television and unplug the iPod that provides background music. But it was, they said, an odd sanction.
Loic Le Garrec, the co-owner of the restaurant, laughed as he recalled the tongue-in-cheek instructions he gave his staff not to entertain the diners.
“For two nights, we couldn’t laugh with the customers,’’ he said. But he was quick to add: “We were not trying to make fun of the city’s decision. We were just trying to look on the bright side.’’
In addition to Young, Waterhouse, and Moomaw, this article was reported by Jenna Duncan, Alli Knothe, and Katherine Landergan for a seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. It was overseen by journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, who is a former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at email@example.com. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.