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Opinion >  Column

Doug Clark: Couple in troubled water over disputed bridge toll

Shirley and Dennis Wendlandt, of Spokane, are disputing that they owe money for a toll on the 520 bridge near Seattle. (Doug Clark)
Shirley and Dennis Wendlandt, of Spokane, are disputing that they owe money for a toll on the 520 bridge near Seattle. (Doug Clark)

I cracked this caper five minutes after saying howdy to Dennis and Shirley Wendlandt in the front yard of their pink cinderblock home in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.

And I’m willing to swear on the lives of all of your children that the license plate affixed to the couple’s cargo trailer is NOT the same plate that was photographed by a toll camera last Nov. 5 on the 520 bridge, outside Seattle.

Never mind that the license numbers – 5811-VL – appear to be the same.

The plate in the bridge photo looks bent, worn and grimy, which, I’ll concede, sounds like a personal injury law firm.

In contrast, the license on the Wendlandt trailer is clean, bordering on immaculate. It also has a blue number “4” tab signifying April as its month for renewal.

The bridge photo, copied and sent to the Wendlandts by the state, has terrible resolution. Still, I can see enough detail to be willing to bet that the tab digit is a 6 or an 8.

Which is all well and fine.

As confident as I am of my sleuthing, getting the Washington Department of Transportation to see the light is a long shot.

This is bureaucracy, after all.

And as it currently stands, the bureaucracy believes the Wendlandts owe $53.10 in unpaid toll and civil penalties.

And climbing.

These things never go away, of course.

“In essence they’re calling me a liar,” huffed Dennis, who swears his trailer hasn’t left his front yard in the last six years and has no intention of paying.

You don’t have to convince me, pal. I’m on your side.

The Wendlandts called me the other day when it finally dawned on them that they were in the deep end of the pool and didn’t know how to swim.

I was happy to hear them out. Meeting the nicest salt-of-the-earth people has always been one of the perks of my job, and this was no exception.

The Wendlandts are not in the best of health. Dennis, 69, has two replaced hips and needs a metal cane to get around. Shirley, 75, is moving slow thanks to the nagging bite of sciatica.

Their most recent trip to Seattle, she told me, happened a year ago come June. They drove there in a 2006 Ford Taurus that has a license plate that begins with the letters “AJD.”

The white, shiny Wells Cargo trailer stayed home. It’s been moored since the down economy and public disinterest forced the Wendlandts to close their business selling square dance regalia in a shop and on the road at festivals.

Even with a background in square dancing, however, the Wendlandts are no match for the circles government can spin.

It began with an innocent notice that arrived in the mail.

The Wendlandts formally disputed the bill in December. The DOT dutifully examined their cause before dutifully responding.

“We have completed our review and your dispute has been denied,” the form letter cheerfully stated.

Time went on and $8.10 became $13.10, which swelled into $53.10.

I called the “Good To Go” number that was on the DOT’s “notice of civil penalty summary” that Dennis loaned me.

Color me surprised. A very nice and surprisingly cooperative woman took my call.

She explained that there can’t be two license plates with the same identical numbers floating around the same identical state.

Of course not. That would be chaos.

I told her that Dennis had called the licensing people and was told that no duplicate licenses had been issued.

It all sounds so reasonable. And yet …

There appears to be a cockroach in the coleslaw.

Hearing about the Wendlandts, a good Samaritan pal of mine offered to pay the 53 bucks before Homeland Security deports the poor souls to some Third World hell hole or Grant County.

Maybe that is the best course.

Er, paying the fine, that is. Not deporting the Wendlandts.

But Dennis and Shirley don’t like getting pushed around. They know they’re in the right. And they’re willing, they say, to dig in for the duration.

The poor sweet dears. They’ll probably need to take out a second mortgage before this train stops rolling.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.

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