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Matt Florell: My role in giving the red light to South Pasadena’s red-light-cameras

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

After a contentious Tuesday meeting, South Pasadena City Commissioners signaled the end of the last red-light-camera program in south Pinellas County.

I am proud of my role in making that happen.

About a week before voting 4 to 1 to end RLCs, the South Pasadena held a two-hour workshop, where city leaders hashed out many of the points brought up at the Feb. 9 meeting.

At that meeting, David Mast, an account representative from RLC vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS) brought Kevin McCoy, a lawyer from Carlton Fisk, to the South Pasadena City Commission Workshop on red-light cameras held Feb. 2.

commissioners also allowed Mast to “phone a friend” by bringing another ATS representative in on a speakerphone. Mast said they had “all hands on deck” for the session.

It was a contrast with Gulfport’s meeting two weeks earlier, with only Mast present. Gulfport City Council members had said he “came unprepared” before they voted unanimously on removing red-light cameras.

Before the ATS group spoke, we heard public comment from attorney Charles Scott, a longtime South Pasadena resident. Pointing out all the neighboring cities that recently abandoned red-light camera programs, Scott said RLCs cause more accidents instead of making streets safer.

Scott addressed the city’s reliance on ATS for paying current lawsuits. If ATS went under, he said, the city could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars. After urging the commission not to renew the contract, several commissioners seemed to react positively, showing respect through their comments.

Next, was local activist Tom Rask. He too mentioned the adverse effects of RLC on safety, adding that the city might have to return millions of dollars of fines collected in the past five years.

Rask urged the commission not to renew the contract with ATS.

Now came ATS’ turn. Both representatives from ATS (as well as their lawyer) each attempted to make the case for keeping the cameras.

Using rather strong language, McCoy’s speech seemed more suited for closing arguments of a courtroom trial and not a City Commission workshop.

First, McCoy (somewhat strangely) made more of an emotional appeal than a legal one, relying less on facts than statements of opinion and what some thought very biased language.

Mast, the ATS representative, gave a typical presentation, one similar to the one he provided in Gulfport two weeks before.

The person on the speakerphone from ATS hardly spoke, except to reiterate points made by the other two. All told, the two either spoke or were asked questions for about 50 minutes.

It seemed to me to be an explicit effort to “save the sale.”

ATS offered a six-month contract at $4,500 per camera per month, down from a previous offer of a one-year term. The sense of desperation was evident, compared with the earlier meeting in Gulfport.

Next to speak was Mayor Dan Calabria, who had recently met with Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri about his strong opposition to red-light cameras. Gualtieri recommended that South Pasadena not renew their contract.

Fortunately, my turn to speak came at the end, giving me an opportunity to rebut ATS’ testimony point by point.

Earlier, McCoy, the ATS lawyer, was asked about the city’s potential liability from cases now in court.

Responding to his vague reply, I brought up the 2014 Florida Supreme Court ruling on RLCs installed before July 2010 — a fact he failed to mention — also pointing out that the city could be on the hook for every ticket issued since the start of the program.

McCoy attempted to claim that ATS’ Business Rules Questionnaire (BRQ) defense could be used to defeat the Arem ruling in court.

However, I reminded them that the Arem decision explicitly says any action beyond taking a photo and video must be by an officer, not the vendor. Even the fundamental task of looking up a license plate number becomes a violation of the law if performed by a supplier, and the Arem decision detailed that particular function.

At that point, no one from the ATS side had a response.

Mast mentioned the 2015 State of Florida RLC report in passing, attempting to spin it in his favor. I had given the commission a hard copy of the report, pointing out the 142 percent increase in T-bone crashes in Tampa, as well as the jump in fatalities as evidence of no apparent safety benefit. I also mentioned St. Petersburg’s sustained drop in crashes even after cameras were removed, and that the St. Peter intersections without cameras saw a better safety result than that at the camera intersections.

On the cost side, I brought up Collier County’s agreement where ATS was paid only $1,500/camera/month for two years. Mast later called it an “anomaly.” Nevertheless, I mentioned that Tampa was getting a much lower rate as well.

I also warned that ATS was a “very litigious” company, suing several clients and even the state of Tennessee. Then there was Brooksville, where that city used ATS at first, but later removed their cameras, choosing a different vendor when they brought the program back. The Brooksville Police chief said that after two years of working with ATS, he never wanted to work with them again.

Mast replied he felt ATS was under attack.

Mast had mentioned how the ATS cameras were useful in police investigations, and that the city had pulled almost 50 videos to help in police investigations. So I talked about my research into hundreds of crashes in St. Petersburg, and that the cameras weren’t as useful in police investigations because most of the time there was no red-light running, so no license plate was available. I mentioned that traffic-monitoring cameras are a higher-quality and cheaper option. Commissioner Arthur Penny then said the Florida Department of Transportation had recently installed three cameras along Pasadena Avenue, and that they could have access to those camera feeds if they want.

At the workshop, two commissioners said they would vote “no” for renewal. Commissioner Gail Neidinger said she’s confident about the safety benefit, but was concerned with legal liability. The other two members did not have any revealing comments as to how they might vote at that time.

Flash forward to Tuesday’s commission meeting.

In the beginning, Penny read from his Public Safety Department report, where he considered benefits of the RLC program. He then stated the workshop recommendation that the city does not renew its contract, repeating his commitment not to change his recommendation.

Afterward, Neidinger said she spoke with residents, and that it was time to end the program. That marked a turning point, with at least three commissioners now publicly saying they would not renew the ATS contract

When the red-light cameras issue came up, final agenda item, Mast spoke first.

“I can do math,” he said. “I can see what is going to happen.”

He then thanked the commission for being a client, saying that if they ever sought a new vendor in the future, they would love to be considered.

Mast concluded ended his remarks by wishing South Pasadena the very best.

Rask spoke again, as did several South Pasadena residents, all for ending the red-light camera program.

During my comments, I shared information recently gathered on severe crashes at four intersections along Pasadena Avenue with red-light cameras installed. Data shows in the five years before cameras were installed versus the five years after, severe crashes increased by 29 percent. In that time, the Pinellas MPO traffic count showed traffic was decreasing 6 percent.

So even with fewer cars on Pasadena Avenue, there were nearly 30 percent more serious crashes.

Penny motioned not to renew the program, with Neidinger seconding.

Commissioner Lari Johnson said the red-light camera program was supposed to be a “safety” program. She mentioned an email from the officer who reviews citations for the city, and with that in mind, the program was a “safety victory.”

Johnson said that she thought the RLCs do a “good job” for the city, but, at this point, it’s a lost cause.

“Hopefully, we’ve changed people’s behavior,” she concluded.

Elson, who was skeptical of the RLCs at first, said he changed his mind when the city issued 2,200 violations in the first month. With revenue going down, he said his decision is more palatable, and the time had come for the city not to renew the contract. Elson finished by saying that his primary concerns are lingering are legal issues, and that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri doesn’t back the program.

“I don’t think anyone is unaware of my position on this issue,” Calabria said. During his comments, the mayor covered several topics, ranging from the lack of public outreach at the program’s start, targeting of Palms of Pasadena Hospital employees, the high cost of appealing the citations, to the last minute feedback and testimony of the city’s camera review officer.

In the end, however, Calabria agreed with the majority: It was time to stop the program.

The final vote was 4 to 1 ending the city’s red-light camera program. Only Johnson opposed.

Cameras in South Pasadena will keep running until March 27 when they will be deactivated.

As of the end of March, only one out of six original red-light camera programs will still be active in Pinellas County: Clearwater (the smallest program in the county) has only three cameras at two intersections. Its contract with Redflex is set to run through at least October 2017.

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