Ken Zajac, his girlfriend and his daughter had crowned a visit to the Dalí Museum with lunch at a popular Beach Drive restaurant when the outing turned sour.
Sitting on his windshield was a parking ticket.
"I wasn't happy,'' said Zajac who had driven to St. Petersburg from his vacation condo on Anna Maria Island.
Back home in Illinois, the architect got another surprise after procrastinating to open the dreaded green envelope. Enclosed with the $25 parking ticket was a 3-by-6-inch card with the drawing of a key welcoming him to St. Petersburg.
"Unfortunately, your meter expired and you were issued a parking citation,'' it said.
"Realizing that new visitors may not be familiar with the city's parking regulations, if this is your first parking ticket you have received in St. Petersburg, you can remit this key and as a gesture of goodwill the city will void the citation."
Zajac realized that he had missed his chance of a reprieve. He should have taken the ticket and a minimum of $25 in receipts showing that he had patronized a downtown establishment that day and delivered them to the parking citation office.
"I said, for God's sakes. But then I thought, it's worth a shot. I called and I pled my case,'' he said.
"They were actually very nice. They said just mail it in with a short letter. I thanked them for giving me a pass."
Introduced more than a year ago, the expired meter amnesty program forgave almost 3,000 tickets through Sept. 15. At $25 a ticket, forgiveness came at a loss to the city of about $75,000.
But receipts presented by those who had their fines forgiven show that they spent at least $243,272 downtown. Beneficiaries of the city's goodwill came from as near as Gulfport, Clearwater, Tampa and Orlando and as far away as Alaska, Japan, South Africa and Sweden.
The amnesty program, one of several initiatives meant to make downtown more customer friendly, is based on a 1950s program that Mayor Bill Foster remembered, said Evan Mory, the city's parking manager. It gave visitors a cardboard key to St. Petersburg to be presented with their summons for a reprieve.
The updated program, which encompasses all on-street meters —- including areas along the waterfront, Central Avenue, University Village, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, All Children's Hospital and Bayfront Medical Center —- has been well received, Mory said.
Tom Sexauer, past president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Business Association, said businesses have been pleased.
"I think it's a great idea, because when you get a parking ticket, it kind of ruins your whole day,'' said Suzy Johnson, owner of Apropos Restaurant & Catering.
"The parking situation is brutal down here,'' she said. "I think it's great for small businesses. If people get parking tickets, they are not going to come back. If there's an amnesty program that allows the ticket to be forgiven, that at least helps."
Those who have had fines voided have presented receipts ranging from $25 a St. Petersburg resident spent at Burrito Boarder to $13,175 a visitor from Germany splurged at Lithos Jewelry. The program accepts receipts from restaurants, movies, hotels, museums and for rental equipment such as Segways, bicycles or boats.
Excluded are concert or other event tickets where parking is offered in garages and lots and government, lawyer, bank and doctors' office visits.
Alan Lucas, owner of Moon Under Water, approves of the amnesty, but the longtime Beach Drive businessman says there's room for improvement in the overall parking system. It's silly to give tickets "when half the street is empty," he said.
"I think we could be friendlier by using a bit of common sense. It is frustrating to own a business on Beach Drive with the parking,'' Lucas said.
"It's really a balancing act between having parking regulations that generate sufficient turnover and availability and making sure those regulations and fees are not too strict or too high,'' Mory responded.
The amnesty program has meant lower revenues from tickets, but that was anticipated and not the only reason, Mory said.
"We made it easier to avoid tickets,'' he said, pointing to reduced hours of enforcement and longer time limits in some areas. Additionally, the pay-by-cell phone program has made paying more convenient. Drivers receive text messages or e-mails alerting them when their meter is about to expire, allowing them to buy up to one extra hour wherever they are, he said.
Last week, the city increased on-street parking from 75 cents an hour to $1. The increase is expected to boost revenues by $313,000. Compared to last fiscal year, overall parking revenues have increased from the city's parking garages, lots and meters.
A booting program, introduced April 22, also accounts for increased revenue. Vehicles whose owners have three or more parking tickets can be immobilized. Drivers have 24 hours to pay a $25 boot fee and unpaid fines, or the vehicle will be towed. So far, scofflaws have shelled out over $43,000.
For the amnesty program, parking violators have to present their ticket and receipts — in person — within 14 days to the parking citation office at Central Avenue and Third Street N. Exceptions to the personal appearance are made on a case-by-case basis.
As in the case of Jennifer Casadio, who was returning to Sarasota over the July Fourth weekend when she stopped for lunch at Moon Under Water.
"We were waiting for the check and we were trying to watch the car" when the time on the meter expired, she said.
Casadio didn't notice the amnesty offer until she got home.
"I was literally kicking myself, because we could have gone around the corner" to take care of it, she said, adding, though, that she was allowed to send her receipt by fax.
St. Petersburg resident Kathi Harris, who got a parking ticket while picking up food at Apropos restaurant, also praised the ticket amnesty.
"I thought it was nice the way they give you a little paper telling how to use it. Maybe we should get one a year."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.