Parking meter 'Robin Hoods' provoke New Hampshire city's ire

LITTLETON, New Hampshire Wed May 15, 2013 11:24pm BST

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LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - In December James Cleaveland made an unusual New Year's resolution: to do all he could to keep police in the city of Keene, New Hampshire, from issuing parking tickets.

Cleaveland and a group of friends took to the streets with pocketfuls of change and began shadowing the city's three parking enforcement officers, stuffing coins in expired meters before they could issue $5 tickets.

They call their practice "Robin Hooding," and in just over four months, the group claims to have spared motorists more than 2,000 tickets in the city of some 23,000.

"It's my philosophy," said Cleaveland, 26, a member of a group called Free Keene, which subscribes to the libertarian principle of smaller government.

"I could go talk to the city council at every meeting but to me, actions speak louder than words. I can go out and try to save people and reduce the number of tickets."

The southern New Hampshire city's government does not share Cleaveland's view. This month it filed suit in state court against him and five others seeking a restraining order to keep them at least 50 feet (15 meters) from parking enforcement officers.

The suit accuses Cleaveland and five others of videotaping, taunting and intimidating its parking meter personnel.

The alleged behaviour includes chasing officers on bicycles, shouting insults and accusing them of stealing people's money. One officer became so stressed that he complained of heart palpitations and began having nightmares about the group, according to court papers.

"It's affecting the employees and it's taking a lot of time and energy to deal with it, and so the city's intent was to try to establish some clear boundaries and a little breathing room," said James Duffy, a member of the Keene City Council.

"We're not saying you can't complain about the meters or plug them, it's just how that's done."

Cleaveland has vowed to continue. He said he knows each parking attendant by name.

"I don't follow them home or try to find them off duty," he said. "They always use the excuse 'I'm just doing my job.' I always say ‘I'm just doing my activity too.'"

CALLING CARD

The Free Keene movement is part of the Free State Project, a group that has sought to get 20,000 libertarians to settle in New Hampshire, a state already known for its limited government and which has no sales or income tax.

The Keene chapter's prior actions included publicly smoking marijuana in the city's central square to protest drug laws, and holding a protest against gun restrictions that featured a half-nude woman armed with a holstered handgun walking through downtown.

Cleaveland's compatriot Garrett Ean, 24, said he feeds meters up to five days a week in three- to four-hour shifts during the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. period when motorists must pay to park downtown.

He said he spends less than $15 a day since some of Keene's meters cost as little as 10 cents for 30 minutes of parking.

Like Cleaveland, he leaves a card on the windshield of each "saved" car that says: "Your Meter Expired! However we saved you from the king's tariff! - Robin Hood & The Merry Men."

The card leaves an address for an activists' centre and encourages motorists to send a donation.

The group sometimes receives handwritten thank-you notes in addition to donations, which are sometimes enough not only to cover the costs of feeding meters but also to allow the group to pay the activists a small amount, said Cleaveland.

City Councillor Duffy said the city, home to Keene State College, is a progressive community whose tolerance is sometimes stretched by the group's scrutiny of even the most minor actions of local government.

"In many ways this is a progressive community and also a tolerant one, but it's been going on long enough," he said. "This won't be the last issue."

(Editing by Scott Malone and Xavier Briand)

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