Wichita police ticket Tea Party protesters' cars at last week's rally

Sometimes, free speech isn't exactly free.

Case in point: Last week, dozens of Wichita tea party protesters ended up owing a $35 parking fine to the government they were there to protest.

Municipal Court records show that at least 71 tickets were issued around City Hall during the April 15 rally on Central between the city building and the Sedgwick County Courthouse.

The tickets were all entered by officers using handheld computers. The number could climb as hand-written parking tickets are logged into the system this week, court officials said.

Forty-five of the tickets were written for parking at the Rounds & Porter Building, an old warehouse that Wichita police use for evidence storage.

The large, city-owned parking lot is at the southwest corner of the section of street where the demonstration was held. Entrances are marked with signs that read: "city permit parking only, unauthorized parking is prohibited." The signs also warn that violators could be towed.

"Welcome to a free America," remarked Lynda Tyler of Kansans for Liberty, the group that organized the tax-day protest. "We had no idea we couldn't park in that location at that time."

Mike's Steak House owner Craig Gabel, who provided hot dogs and soft drinks for the tea party, said his truck driver who delivered the food to the event got a ticket in the Rounds & Porter lot.

He said he'll pay the ticket. But he questioned why the city spends millions on downtown redevelopment and then denies residents use of city-owned parking after regular business hours.

A police spokesman could not be reached for comment.

But City Council member Sue Schlapp, who participated in the rally, said: "I think it said 'no parking.' People parked. It's just that simple."

Not so simple, Tyler said.

She said she was surprised that attendees got tickets for using the city lot after the group had paid the city $750 to close the street and divert traffic around the demonstration.

"I find it a raw deal in many ways," Tyler said.

She said the lot was nearly empty when people arrived for the 5 p.m. demonstration, which drew several hundred people protesting taxes, national health care legislation and City Hall spending.

She said after bad experiences finding parking last week — and at a winter rally at the city-owned Century II Convention Center — she plans to move future tea parties back to the county-owned Sedgwick County Park in west Wichita.

Council member Jeff Longwell, who attended part of last week's rally, said he was approached by one of the ticket recipients during the event and walked over to the parking lot, where he saw that most of the cars had a ticket on the windshield.

He said he checked the signs and conceded that officers did have the authority to write the tickets. But he said he doesn't see much point to it since the city doesn't need the parking after business hours.

"Do I think it was a little tacky of the police to write those tickets? Absolutely," he said. "Sometimes a little discretion is OK."

He said he has since asked the city manager to redraft the ordinance so the lot could be used by the public in the evening.

"I can understand and appreciate why they need to protect that lot for our employees during the daytime," he said. "What probably offends me is that we didn't have the foresight to go ahead and put it to use at night.

"We need to figure out a way to fix that so we can have more parking downtown."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle