The Legend of the St. John’s Meter Bandits

A headless meter serves as a bottle holder on the St. John’s waterfront. Photo by Liam Penney. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/basedpenney/

“I was walking back home from Downtown one night, and I saw this guy a little further up ahead,” a friend began, leaning in eagerly as he continued. “All of a sudden he stops in front of a meter, looks around, then takes a framing-hammer out of his jacket and just starts wailing on it.” He acted out the motions as he told us, swinging at the phantom parking meter. “Then he put the hammer back into his jacket and walked off like nothing happened.”

It was a familiar story: a shadowy encounter, a flurry of violence, a decapitated parking meter, and a departure so quick and nonchalant that you were never quite certain of what you saw— the tell-tale signs of the Meter Bandits.

These were stories that had been circulating for a few years, ever since the heads of parking meters and their wiry entrails began appearing strewn across the landscape of St. John’s. I was working in a local newsroom the first time that I had heard of them, the ‘Meter Bandits’ as they had become known.

For a time, it was assumed that the damaged meters were the unfortunate victims of bored teenagers and destitute addicts turning to petty crime. Slowly, however, the murmurs began to grow, and a new theory was put forward. This was not merely an act of vandalism or desperation; rather, this was an act of some kind of revolutionary fervour.

Shortly before the majority of St. John’s regarded the parking meters as a topic of discussion, the news on everyone’s lips was the raising of taxes in the downtown core. In December of 2015, the city released its new budget, and for numerous local business owners the property tax increases spelled little more than hard times ahead, with some owners seeing increases upwards of $10,000. In a CBC article published just weeks afterwards in January of 2016, then-Mayor Dennis O’Keefe admitted that while the property taxes were unfair, St. John’s business owners were stuck with it while the region hoped for an economic upturn.

As small business owners struggled to keep up with their new taxes in the slow winter months, residents began to notice that from Water St. all the way to Memorial University, there was a notable increase in damage to parking meters.

Two years earlier, the City of St. John’s had replaced over 1,000 parking meters with new digital devices through a Nova Scotia-based company. With a price-tag of $474 each, the total cost was nearly half-a-million dollars.  

Between vandalism, petty crime, and the occasional motor-vehicle collision, damaged parking meters had never been an uncommon sight in St. John’s. However, the extent and range to which they were being broken was enough to raise suspicion. In the newsroom we would often bat around a story which was heard from someone who heard it from someone, that the meters were being broken not for the money, but in retaliation. This idea was usually bolstered by similarly unsupported claims that some meters had been found with their cash intact, indicating that whoever was responsible wasn’t interested in the money.

By the start of 2018, there were 1,067 parking meters in St. John’s, with 1,000 of them having been damaged so badly that they needed to be repaired or replaced at some point over the past several years. Taking into account the cost of repair, as well as lost funds, the city estimated that the total expense of the meters had climbed to $1.4 million by the beginning of that year.

Speaking to the CBC in a piece published in late March, St. John’s city Councillor Debbie Hanlon indicated that despite the cost to the city, vandals were only getting about $10 per each damaged meter. In total, there had been more than 90 documented cases of vandalism in conjunction with the meters, and that some individuals had been charged.

Many drivers in St. John’s were not bothered – some were ostensibly happy at the sight of broken parking meters; after all, a broken and unbagged meter was a free parking space in a landscape of rising fees. A new term began to appear which painted these purported vandals in a light that reflected more Robin Hood than desperate addict, and slowly the myth of the Meter Bandits grew. These weren’t petty criminals, rather, vigilantes. In light of the city’s tax-hike years prior, they were fighting back against the city in the only way they knew would get the Council’s attention: not at the ballot-box, but in the pocket-book.

While it was a popular thought, and despite second-hand stories of near-encounters, there was little to support the idea that there was, in fact, an unaffiliated though politically linked group of radicals who sought to strike back against the perceivably unjust policies of city council.

Two months later, however, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the destruction of the parking meters may have been anything but political. Between Friday, May 25th and Monday, May 28th of 2018, 64 parking meters were destroyed and many of them left in a heap on Water Street, their electronic screens still blinking incredulously as city officials struggled to make sense of the scene. The meters themselves had just recently been replaced after damage earlier that year. J.J. MacKay Canada, the Nova Scotia-based manufacturer who serviced nearly 1,000 other municipalities, had reported that they had never experienced issues like they did in St. John’s.

It was only after May’s blitz of meters that the City began publicly considering if the meters should be replaced at all, or if an alternative solution could be found. Many held their breath to see if the new cashless system, to be tentatively implemented in June along Harbour Dive, would be a successful alternative to the embattled meters.

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On May 31st, eleven days before the new system was to be implemented, police apprehended a 35 year-old man for damaging and stealing the contents of a parking meter outside St. Clare’s Hospital. Shortly after 7:40 p.m., responding officers stopped a vehicle which the suspect had fled in, though he ran from the scene. The 33-year-old female driver of the vehicle was ticketed for not having insurance, and for having failed to transfer ownership. The vehicle was subsequently impounded, and the suspect was picked up at his home a few hours later.

Three local news agencies ran the story the following morning, with VOCM reporting that the suspect, Leslie John Jordan, was swiftly brought before the court and was charged with destruction of city property not exceeding $5,000, theft from city property not exceeding $5,000, and one breach of recognizance. Over the course of the proceedings, the Crown indicated that his charges were in connection to the damage and theft from one parking meter only. The Telegram echoed this, and clarified that there was no evidence linking Jordan to any more meters in the recent spate of damages across downtown St. John’s. No publication indicated exactly how much money Jordan made away with from the single parking meter.

Later that summer on July 17th, police were called to reports of a woman damaging parking meters along Harvey Rd., and quickly apprehended the 29-year-old suspect. Earlier that week, another woman, also 29 years old, was arrested on similar charges for damage to meters in Churchill Sq. Both faced the same charges as Jordan, with theft and damages not exceeding $5,000.

Over the course of the summer, and the years prior which also saw a steady rate of damages to meters, many things remained the same. The legends surrounding the Meter Bandits and their crusade continued to grow, albeit in the hushed tones of water-cooler conversation, and with little actual evidence of their existence. So little, in fact, that both news organizations and the city itself never made comment on their existence, referring only to the forces of vandalism and petty crime as the reasons behind the damages; this was made evident in a 2017 Access to Information Request obtained by CBC, which refers to thieves going after the money inside the meters as the cause of their rampant and targeted destruction. To date, no Meter Bandit has ever come forward and publicly acknowledged their actions and reasons.

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Statistics released in 2017 had already indicated an increase in the poverty rate of Newfoundland and Labrador, with the numbers hovering just below 14 percent of residents considered low-income. In a CBC article released late November of that year, Joanne Thompson, the Executive Director of the Gathering Place, indicated significant issues in the government’s calculation of that rate. Particularly, Thompson highlighted the fact that the numbers had been constructed using CRA information from residents who had been filing income tax; the majority of client’s she had seen utilizing the Gathering Place’s services, however, were not filing any income tax and therefore were not counted in that data.

St. John’s had seen a marked increase in panhandling in the downtown core in recent years, with some citing harsh economic conditions and a lack of opportunity for those most vulnerable members of the community. For some, non-criminal activities such as panhandling, as well as the increase in food-bank usage, are obvious indicators of economic desperation in the city.

Perhaps the legend of the bandits exists only in the imagination of St. John’s small business owners, a novel day-dream of middle-class reckoning and comfort at the thought that someone is out there, metering out justice for those who feel they’ve been unduly targeted by the city’s tax hikes.

The destruction of parking meters, however, is a phenomenon that has existed in this city long before the 2015 tax-hike, and while it’s difficult to overlook the political undertones of sixty-four decapitated meters left in a heap along Water St., city officials are right to keep criminals in mind. What they’re lacking, however, is any real consciousness of what those criminal activities mean, or what they represent.

To call it senseless vandalism is to negate the protest behind the supposed Meter Bandit’s crusade against the city and its chequebook. Just the same, to call it a matter of petty crime is to never ask why people might take a bat or hammer to a meter in the first place, an act which at worst will land them in court, and at best might put $10 in their hand.

To see the destruction of these parking meters as the consequence of the city’s tax-hike on businesses is only half the story. The unseen half is, as it has always been – poor, hungry, destitute, and without other option. These are the true Meter Bandits of St. John’s: united only by the circumstance of their desperation, in protest of nothing more but the barriers to their next meal.

St. John’s has largely given up on its parking meters, and now city officials are batting around the idea of pay-kiosks and downloadable parking apps. While nothing formal has yet been announced, the 2019 city budget is looming closer with its proposed mill rate increases, a measure that some feel will see a higher tax for low-income homeowners.

If there are Meter Bandits out there, working tirelessly to balance the city’s battery of local industry with some of their own, then they’ll soon have to find a new front to fight on. Perhaps they’ll follow the city’s lead and continue the battle digitally. In the meantime, the city’s neglect of its low-income residents shows no signs of stopping. With St. John’s boasting the worst wage inequality in Atlantic Canada, as well as the country’s highest rate of food bank usage amongst its residents, petty crime like the destruction of parking meters will continue. The question is, what urban legends might we create next to distract us from our own accountability in a city which loves to talk about issues of parking, but remains silent on those larger issues of poverty in our own community?

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