NYC wants to offer more cash for reporting idle cars — except to 1 guy

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By Dan Sears

Anti-idling vigilante Hunter Severini was tired of waiting.

He’d sent the city numerous videos allegedly showing drivers unlawfully spewing exhaust from their idling cars. But he believed the city clerk in charge of processing his cut of fines imposed on those drivers was dragging her feet, according to documents obtained by Gothamist detailing his “unexpected and unlawful appearance” in April 2022.

The clerk worked in the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH – the normally staid administrative law court that adjudicates summonses for violations of some laws and city rules.

Severini estimates he’s filed more than 2,000 idling complaints since 2021 – more than two per day.

But his presence in the office that day sparked panic among staffers. The clerk had received threatening emails and voicemails from Severini and “was alarmed and feared for her safety,” according to OATH records Gothamist obtained through a freedom of information request. Severini had accessed an employee-only floor. Security was notified and Severini eventually left the Manhattan offices on John Street. The NYPD investigated the incident but did not make an arrest.

The intrusion was part of a yearslong dispute between Severini and the city’s administrative law court. The episode highlights alleged abuse of the idling law, which the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams want to expand.

Under current city law, a citizen can submit a video to the Department of Environmental Protection showing a vehicle idling for more than three minutes – or more than one minute near a school. If the city determines a violation occurred and OATH collects an idling fine, the citizen complainant gets a 25% cut. Fines range anywhere from $350 for a first-time offender to $2,000 for a serial idler. That means complainers like Severini could earn anywhere from $87.50 to $500 per complaint.

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But in December, Severini was suspended from appearing before OATH for 180 days for submitting the same video of an idling truck four times, claiming the offense allegedly occurred at a different address each time, according to a letter from OATH Commissioner Asim Rehman. Officials alleged he also submitted a video of an idling vehicle that “appears to have been edited or altered.”

Severini disputes those allegations, but acknowledged in correspondence with OATH that he was “frustrated” with how his idling complaints were handled. He didn’t hold back in emails.

“THE LONGER THIS NONSENSE CONTINUES, THE WORSE IT IS GOING TO LOOK FOR YOU,” he wrote to an OATH employee. He wrote that the clerk handling his payments was “running her office in an incompetent and disheveled manner.” In an interview, Severini insisted that “concern over air quality in the city” motivated him.

Councilmember Julie Menin is sponsoring legislation to increase the idling fines. Under her bill, fines for first-time offenders would start at $1,000 – meaning citizen complainants would get $250. She was unaware of Severini’s case, and said the idling law has proved effective at deterring many drivers.

But big corporations are still idling.

“You’ve got companies like Amazon and Fresh Direct that basically are viewing the meager $350 penalty as just the cost of doing business,” Menin said. “So we have to change it.”

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Gothamist previously reported on City Council legislation to reform a “vigilante” law allowing citizen complainants to get a cut of fines imposed on businesses unlawfully blasting music onto sidewalks. Councilmembers said the reform, which drastically reduced payouts to citizen complainants, was necessary because a small group of noise vigilantes were taking advantage of the program and creating hassles for business owners.

In an interview, Severini said he’s part of a small group of fewer than two dozen hardcore idling enforcers. In his correspondence with an NYPD officer inquiring about the incident at the OATH office, Severini provided a map of his complaints, which showed he’d hit every borough but the Bronx, with a particular focus on idling vehicles in Lower Manhattan.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which enforces the law, did not have specific information on how many complaints Severini had filed, or how much he had been paid. But the city said last year it was on track to receive more than 90,000 idling complaints from the overall public in 2023.

In a written response to OATH obtained by Gothamist, Severini said the agency’s allegations against him violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because the agency doesn’t train staff to deal with “neurodiverse” people like him.

Severini said he’s seen the effectiveness of the idling program firsthand.

“I think that the citizen incentive program is very important – I’ve seen the difference myself,” said Severini, who lives in SoHo. “I believe idling has definitely declined. You’ve got big companies, which almost don’t idle anymore…that used to have their entire fleet idling in New York City.”

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An OATH spokesperson stood behind the agency’s decision to ban Severini, telling Gothamist that the agency “has rules that must be followed by those who use our services.”

“Compliance with procedural rules is an important ingredient in OATH’s strong track record of professionalism, independence, timely decision-making and impartiality,” spokesperson Marisa Senigo said in a statement. “When someone breaks those rules, they can be subject to sanctions.”

Severini said he was “surprised” by the ban – and that he’s suffering financially as a result. He claimed he won’t get any of the more than $15,000 he says he’s owed until his suspension ends in June.

“Their position is that they don’t have to pay me while I am suspended,” he said.

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