To My Countrymen, I suggest that a good citizen doesn’t run away from fighting City Hall, that he indeed engages City Hall when he must, and that he wins – every time. I wrote this essay two decades ago, and I meant it to suggest that part of our collective powerlessness is our own doing. If we aren’t willing to fight for what we want, it is our own damn fault that we don’t get it. And that when we do fight, we always win (yeah, and I know that the fight takes time and effort, and sometimes persistence).
About a month ago, I received a mailing from Express Lanes, an E-ZPass company. It told me that, on Saturday, April 16th, at 11:39pm, I had driven through an E-ZPass lane going from Petersburg to Fredericksburg, Virginia without paying the $1.25 toll. I did not recall having done so, so I imagined that it must have been a case of my finding myself trapped in an E-ZPass section of highway with no option other than driving through, as I do not own an E-ZPass “transponder” (because I never have to deal with E-ZPass toll roads). And I have a vague recollection (a dream, a déjà vu?) of speaking with someone who told me I would be sent a notice requesting payment of the toll. But the kicker was the demand that I pay an extra $12.50 administrative fee!When I saw a $12.50 “administrative fee” attached to a request to pay a $1.25 toll, my immediate reaction was: “an ‘administrative fee’ that’s 10 times the toll? This is extortion, and no way am I paying it.”So, I mailed them a check for $1.25, with a note explaining why I didn’t think I should pay the “administrative fee.”A week or more later, I received another letter. “We are in receipt of your check, etc. You still owe us $12.50.” Frankly, their explanation why I still owed them that administrative fee felt like they hadn’t read MY explanation of why I did NOT owe them their administrative fee.So I called them.“I’d like you to waive that administrative fee.”“We can’t do that.”“May I speak with your supervisor”“Can you hold?”“Certainly.”A thirty second break.“We will waive the administrative fee and your balance with us is now zero.”“Thank you.”
All customer service phone numbers connect you with a clerk who has no power to make a decision that favors you and not them. These workers are there to collect what their company thinks you owe them. A request to speak with a supervisor is a request to speak with someone with some authority. If they deny you, you ask to speak with their supervisor. At some point or another, it is not worth their time to fight you; or you have proved a willingness to give them a hard time, if not a day in court (which, even if it might cost you, will cost them much more than they are trying to extort from you). They don’t really want to fight you, as it draws attention to them. But most folks just bend over and take it….
“OK,” you may say, “a good technique to keep a business from taking advantage of me, but I don’t see City Hall anywhere.”
Before I called Express Lanes, I asked a lawyer friend about the consequences of my non-payment of the $12.50 administrative fee.“They will increase their administrative fee.”“So what, if I’m not paying $12.50, I am not paying $50. Screw them!”“There will be an administrative fee of $50, or $100, to pay next time you go to register your car; it won’t be so easy to wiggle out of paying the Motor Vehicle Bureau then.”“They can do that?”“They do do that.”
There it is, there is City Hall. I don’t know if E-ZPass or Express Lanes are governmental agencies or private firms, but they are connected with the government – with “City Hall” – through the Motor Vehicle Bureau of your state. They have official authority to assess an excessive administrative fee, and they have official authority to block the renewal of your vehicle’s registration. City Hall will always try to enrich itself at the expense of the people. And they will ride roughshod over you until you fight back. There it is, you’re fighting City Hall.
And once you have developed the Fight City Hall muscles, you will be ready to take on even bigger challenges, like fighting for a real democracy, where shit like this doesn’t happen every day.