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Clearwater reconsiders installing red-light cameras

CLEARWATER — Continuing legal and political challenges to red-light cameras could lead to a change of heart about the city's own fledgling program.

The City Council, which voted 3-2 in December to pursue the cameras, had discussed voting on Thursday to request bids from camera contractors, one of the first big steps toward installation.

But recent controversy about the cameras across the state — courtroom drama in South Florida, talk of a repeal in Tallahassee — led Mayor Frank Hibbard to suggest the city could be better off waiting.

"I voted for this, and I'm starting to take a little pause, that maybe we ought to let some of the rest of this shake out first," Hibbard said. "Things just keep changing, and I don't want to use all our resources battling this."

Rob Surette, a legal adviser to the police, told the council Tuesday that most camera challenges seemed without merit or could be overturned. Said police Chief Tony Holloway: "As the judges start to make decisions, those arguments will go down."

Council member George Cretekos, a vocal dissenter in December's vote, said he would push to postpone the vote, saying there are "still too many uncertainties."

Council member Paul Gibson, who also voted no in December, said installing cameras now would burden the city with defending one side of a pricey, litigious debate. "Let someone else pay for it," he said.

State Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican representing part of Miami-Dade County, introduced a bill last week to repeal the camera law, which was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist last year. Garcia, whose parents fled Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1965, said the cameras amounted to the first step toward a police state.

The cameras have faced similar resistance in South Florida's courtrooms. In West Palm Beach, defense attorneys have seized on the cameras' fuzzy pictures and missing timestamps, prompting hearing officers to discard dozens of contested tickets for lack of evidence.

Last month, the city and camera contractor fought back, dispatching attorneys and a box of case law to defend the $158 tickets. A spokesman for contractor American Traffic Solutions told the Palm Beach Post that less than 1 percent of last year's 4.5 million tickets nationwide were thrown out.

Chief Holloway and Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels said a draft of the city's request for proposals covered most of the troublesome loopholes.

High-definition cameras would eliminate any license plate uncertainties. And unlike Pembroke Pines — where cameras have cost the city thousands of dollars in unforeseen legal fees — the city would insist the program be kept "cost neutral." All installation, maintenance and overage costs would be shunted to the contractor.

The draft request would install cameras above two intersections for a term of two years. The city would have the right to stop any intersection's cameras with 10 days' notice, or cancel the program outright with 90 days' notice. After a vehicle passed the red-light sensor and the camera recorded the car's movement, the video would be transmitted to a city reviewer stationed at a computer. That reviewer would verify violations and delete false takes. Violations for red-light right turns, which can trigger the cameras, would be thrown out, Surette said.

The reviewer would then send that data back to the company, which would mail out the tickets en masse. Fines would start at $158 and, if paid late, jump to $264. Drivers could dispute the tickets in traffic court. No points would be assessed.

Holloway said the ticket reviewer could be an officer on light duty or a hired civilian coached on the law. The city's traffic team includes a sergeant and five officers, Holloway said, and "these cameras would allow those officers to be deployed elsewhere."

Over the last two years, police figures show, there were 26 fatal crashes within city limits. Two of those crashes were related to red lights. Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said no fatal crashes occurred at the intersections where cameras have been proposed.

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Clearwater reconsiders installing red-light cameras 03/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 27, 2011 4:13pm]
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