Gulfport City Council votes to let red light camera contract expire

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The Gulfport City Council voted unanimously 5 to 0 to not renew the City’s red light camera contract with their vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS). The discussion in City Council chambers lasted for over an hour, and by the end of it, there was no shortage of reasons why the Council voted they way they did.

The Council meeting started with awards, applause and a spirited discussion about an “aggressive therapy pig” that was causing problems a couple of blocks away.

Soon, the conversation turned to the topic of Red Light Cameras, and things got a lot more serious.

First was public comment. I should mention that I am hardly impartial on this issue, having fought against red light cameras in St. Petersburg and around Florida for the last 5 years (even though I have never personally received a red light camera ticket).

As the only person to speak in public comment about red light cameras at this meeting, I used my time to call into question the crash statistics that the city staff had put in the agenda report. I also mentioned the 2015 Red Light Camera report recently released by the State of Florida, which showed that crashes at 276 red light camera intersections in Florida increased by 14 percent, and incapacitating-injury crashes have increased by 29 percent since cameras were installed.

I said that this clearly shows red light cameras do not make intersections safer, and asked the City Council not to renew their contract with ATS.

After I spoke, the representative from ATS, David Mast, approached the microphone. He first apologized to the City Council for the poor level of service that Gulfport had received in the past. Then he reaffirmed ATS’ commitment to fighting legal challenges in Florida, stating that “you can imagine the band of lobbyists and lawyers that we employ here in Florida.”

After his statements, the members of Council started to ask Mast their questions.

Yolanda Roman was first, asking about why the city was not notified about changes to the system that resulted in a doubling of the number of citations issued in the last three years. Mast responded that it was the fault of the previous account representative, and he also said that it is not typical to notify their clients about routine maintenance.

Roman also asked about making changes to their contract to allow police officers to review all potential citations so that they could be in compliance with the court rulings happening recently. Mast responded that ATS has a new process, called “categorization,” that allows all possible violations to be sent on for police review.

He then talked about the recent court actions, saying that “The courts are trying to help us … Even though it looks like we are losing, we are really winning.”

Next, it was Dan Liedtke‘s turn to question Mast. The councilman apparently came well-prepared, having done his research.

Liedke asked questions about issues that I had never heard of, let alone from an elected official. First, he probed further on the equipment servicing and upgrade issue, mentioning that in addition to the replaced sensors, there was also a software upgrade that they were not notified about, and that neighboring South Pasadena had also seen a spike in citations when their system was upgraded.

When Mast tried to blame this on the recent rise in yellow light times, Liedtke pointed out that none of Gulfport’s yellow light times had changed in the 5 years the cameras have been there, to which Mast didn’t respond. Liedtke asked more questions about the False-positive-rate and the Capture-efficiency-rate, and why Gulfport was not aware of any internal ATS metrics as they were related to their red light camera system. Mast again had no response.

When Liedtke asked about ATS’ internal quotas for the violations processors, Mast stated that they didn’t have quotas, but that they did have ways of evaluating and measuring their employees’ performance. Liedtke then asked directly how many violations per hour an ATS employee would process on average; Mast responded, “105 per hour.” (As a note, that is only 34 seconds to evaluate each potential violation).

When asked why many other cities like Orlando pay significantly less per camera than Gulfport, Mast answered that it was because Orlando mails the citations itself.

Councilman Michael Fridovich pointed out later that Gulfport already pays extra for this, and Mast could offer no other reasons why Gulfport pays so much more than other ATS clients do for their cameras.

Roman then asked what seemed like a simple question, about when the last time the red light camera sensors were calibrated, to which Mast responded, “I don’t have that answer right now.” Roman then admonished Mast, saying “that’s the kind of crucial information that you should have been prepared with.”

After some more discussion about how much they were paying per camera, Mayor Sam Henderson asked his first question. He wanted to know if ATS would be giving Gulfport a partial refund for running a defective system for the first several years the cameras were in operation, to which Mast only responded, “I will take that back with me.”

Later, the mayor asked Mast if ATS would allow Gulfport to end their contract now instead of giving them a partial refund.

The answer “is above my pay grade,” he responded.

Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent, a red light camera supporter, was then asked about the impact of halting the red light camera program. He stated that they spend a lot of time reviewing potential violations and preparing for court cases, but less time than stationing officers at those intersections to catch red light runners.

Vincent also stated that the cameras have helped in 7 criminal investigations. But, later added that it could be possible to put their own traffic monitoring cameras up to serve the same purpose in the future, if red light cameras go away.

When the Chief was questioned on per-intersection crash statistics, Vincent said he didn’t have that information, his report only showed citywide crashes.

At this point, Liedtke mentioned that he had reviewed dozens of those crash reports himself, and said that even accidents in a McDonald’s parking lot were included in those numbers, a kind of crash that has nothing to do with red light cameras.

The City Attorney then stated that Gulfport is currently involved in two active legal actions regarding red light cameras, one is being handled by ATS, and the other is being handled by their insurance carrier, so the City is not spending any significant funds on defending either at this time.

The final comment of the night came from Henderson. For the mayor, it’s not about crash changes or citation numbers, it’s the over 200 interactions he’s had with constituents about red light cameras. Henderson said there has not been a single conversation with residents where someone says “I like it.”

“I’d much rather find a different way to improve traffic safety,” he added.

With that, there was a move to vote on the motion to renew the contract with ATS, and each member of council responded with “No.”

Gulfport’s three red light cameras will remain active until their current contract expires in two months. After that, they will continue to process the remaining citations for another month, and there will continue to be magistrate hearings into the Summer months.