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Turns Out, the Accident Was the Easy Part

You might say Pam Chinelli was fortunate. She walked away from a fender-bender in a Culver City parking lot with no more than a bashed-in door. No one was hurt, and the woman who backed into her car was contrite and cooperative, and had enough insurance to cover it all.

But Chinelli considers herself unlucky that what started as a simple trip to the store launched her on a bureaucratic odyssey that might have worn down a less hardy soul.

“All I wanted was to get my car fixed,” Chinelli said. But because the person who hit her was driving a car owned by the city, “all I got was one roadblock after another; a lot of passing the buck and paper shuffling.”

Hers is not an earthshaking case. There are no corrupt politicians or scandalous officials to blame. Chinelli is just a regular Jane, whose humdrum story illustrates how slowly the wheels of giant bureaucracy grind.

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And whose outcome lends credence to an old adage: This squeaky wheel got greased in record time.

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Chinelli was stopped in the parking lot of the Antique Guild when Councilwoman Jan Perry backed out of a parking space and smashed into the side of her Honda. The two women got out, surveyed their cars and exchanged driver’s licenses.

“I noticed it was a government car--it had this distinctive license plate--but the name Jan Perry meant nothing to me,” Chinelli said. A resident of West Hollywood, Chinelli doesn’t follow politics closely enough to recognize Perry as a Los Angeles representative, whose district runs from downtown through South-Central LA.

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Chinelli called her insurance company from her cell phone on the way home. She took her car to the shops they recommended and got two damage estimates. She sent them off, then waited for a call.

“When I didn’t hear anything for two weeks, I called my insurance adjuster,” she said. “He said he’d been calling and calling, but no one at City Hall had returned his calls. So I decided to call. I figured once I reached somebody, we’d get this taken care of right away.”

But Perry’s aide told her the councilwoman had already filed the requisite forms and referred Chinelli to the city attorney. The city attorney’s office sent her to Fleet Services, which handles records of city cars. They directed her to Civil Liability, the office that handles the city’s financial claims. They sent her back to Perry’s office. At each stop there were requests for more information, additional forms, copies of copies she’d already mailed.

When she complained that she was getting the runaround, a claims supervisor told her to cool her heels; that a claim like hers would wind up on the bottom of a very big pile and could take six months to rise to the top. If she was in a hurry, he said, she’d be better off paying to repair the car herself, then asking the city for reimbursement.

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That got her worried, and angry. It would cost $1,800 to repair her car. With her insurance deductible and rental car fees, she would be out almost $900. “I don’t have a spare thousand dollars [to spend] while I wait for the city to get its act together,” said Chinelli, who works as a substitute teacher.

“I told him I couldn’t afford to have the work done myself, and it’s not fair that I should have to, when none of this was my fault. I told him I didn’t see why this should take six months; that it should be a real simple thing. He said nothing is simple in this city.”

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Like it or not, that’s the reality in a city of 3.7 million people. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office handles more than 5,000 claims each year, dealing with everything from high-profile police misconduct to the garden variety slip-and-fall. Of the 5,500 financial liability claims filed last year, 1,200 were automobile-related.

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City officials say they have to proceed cautiously, even if it does put the squeeze on the little guy. “It’s our responsibility to thoroughly investigate each claim, because ultimately it’s the taxpayers’ money that goes to pay them,” explained Mary McGuire of the City Attorney’s office. “Any money we’re spending on liability is money that we’re not spending on our kids and our communities.”

And anyone who’s ever had to tangle with bureaucracy knows that it’s not just in the claims process that big cities, like big businesses, are notoriously ... well, bureaucratic in how they handle things. “I know it’s frustrating for her, because it’s frustrating for us inside the system,” said one city employee, who helped expedite Chinelli’s claim. “It takes forever to handle the simplest problems ... to order printer paper or ink, to get a telephone line fixed. There’s a mountain of paperwork for everything.”

Still, Chinelli was determined to cut through the red tape. “I called them every day,” she said. “I cried, I argued, I got nasty. I sent them letters saying how wrong it was.”

And on Saturday--eight weeks after her collision, but four months ahead of schedule--Chinelli received a $2,280 settlement check in the mail. “I still don’t understand why it took this long,” she said. “Everybody seems to drop the ball if you don’t stay on them.”

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But she finds a trace of irony in the outcome. All she wanted was to get her car fixed and have the city pick up the bill. Instead, “they actually gave me more money than it’ll probably cost to fix my car,” she said. “I may come out ahead by a couple hundred dollars.”

And who says it doesn’t pay to fight City Hall?

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Sandy Banks’ column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. She is at sandy.banks@latimes.com

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