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City Council all talk, no action on school zone tickets

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council took no action on recently surfaced reports that the city is issuing more speeding tickets in school zones than the rest of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties combined as a result of improperly marked zones at several locations.

St. Pete City Council Chair Charlie Gerdes scheduled a staff report for Thursday’s meeting to get more information following a WTSP investigative report uncovering numerous locations where signage was not in compliance with rules set by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Those rules include ensuring signs are tall enough to be visible during heavy traffic, placing signs at least 200 feet before an intersection and making sure signs aren’t blocked from view by overgrown trees or shrubs.

Red light camera activist and City Council frequenter Matt Florell took a photo of one such school zone near Meadowlawn Middle School. After measuring the sign and distance from the intersection, Florell found the sign was too short, was placed more than 70 feet ahead of where it should have been and the school zone speed limit is not over-sized, as FDOT suggests.

Florell showed the photo to City Council to a mix of reactions.

“Ultimately it’s about keeping our kids safe,” said councilmember Wengay Newton after suggesting St. Pete may issue more school zone tickets because drivers are too busy texting.

Bill Dudley, who said he’s watched the comings and goings of vehicles near where Florell took the photo for some three decades, also dismissed problems with signage.

“When you go through the zones, there it’s almost continuous,” Dudley said noting there are three schools in the same immediate area between 54th and 62nd Avenues North and 16th Street.  “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for [drivers] running the signs.”

According to Tom Gibson, the city’s interim public works administrator, the city is half done fixing the problems. He said workers and traffic engineers are checking school zones one at a time and fixing issues as they are found. They expect the fixes to be done sometime this month.

There are about 70 school zones in St. Pete and it’s estimated that some 40 of them had one problem or another.

But there were still some concerns. After a barrage of questions from Gerdes, Gibson acknowledged there wasn’t a whole lot of documentation to show what the city was doing to inspect the zones.

When Gerdes asked about when, how and by whom inspections were carried out he was told it was done on a continual basis by city staff. But there aren’t reports to show that. Gerdes suggested the city start keeping better tabs on that process.

Gerdes suggested a motion that would have set a symbolic guideline for the city to strictly follow FDOT guidelines on school zones. He said such policy would allow the city to protect itself against lawsuits or other grievances brought forth by drivers who didn’t think signs were appropriately placed.

If the city strictly followed FDOT rules, they could simply point to the law and say they were following it.

Gibson and St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman both said the city is already doing that. Gerdes’ motion died for lack of a second.

According to St. Pete Police, the city issues an average of about 1,700 school zone citations each year. So far this year, they’ve issued more than 1,100. And the fines can be steep. Speeding citations in active school zones are at least double what they would be on regular roads.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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