CLEARWATER — In a stunning double-reversal, the City Council voted Thursday to pursue its red-light camera plan only three days after it pushed to postpone it.
Council members on Monday said the plan's indefinite hold could save the city from a "legal minefield" of court challenges. City officials backed the delay, saying statewide uncertainty had caused "confusion as to the (cameras') effectiveness."
But Thursday night, Mayor Frank Hibbard and members John Doran and Bill Jonson showed the uncertainty was much closer to home. Members pulled a motion to reject all bids from its consent agenda, where other changes were swiftly approved, and voted instead to negotiate a six-month pilot program for eight cameras with vendor Redflex.
The sudden shift surprised police and officials at City Hall, who had believed the delay was a done deal. It also kept the council from having to face camera critics' vocal opposition.
Hibbard said talks with state legislators, as well as a Broward judge's ruling this week that the cameras are constitutional, convinced him the systems had more support than he thought.
"I was really convinced Monday," Hibbard said. "But I will tell you, I've changed my mind."
Vice Mayor George Cretekos and council member Paul Gibson reiterated their doubts, with Cretekos saying he "would rather have this all shake out" first. Gibson said he worried the costs to defend the tickets in court "could eat us alive."
Under the city's plan, the cameras would watch over two Belcher Road intersections, at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Sunset Point Road. The city would not pay for installation or maintenance, but could earn a profit from the $158 tickets. If the six-month test is a success, the camera contract would run for at least two years.
Doran, a longtime camera advocate, said the council's support for the cameras was based on a desire for safer roads, not money. The city saw 32 deadly crashes in 2009 and 2010, two of which were caused by red-light violations, police records show. Neither crash happened at the proposed intersections.
The council's vote adds Clearwater back to the list of Tampa Bay cities watched by the cameras. Tampa and St. Petersburg will likely install about 40 cameras in the coming months. Cameras are already rolling in Hillsborough County, Gulfport, South Pasadena, Kenneth City, Temple Terrace, New Port Richey and Port Richey.
Thursday's stop-and-go mirrors the council's talks in March, when state legislators were preparing to debate a bill that would ban the cameras. The council said it would suspend the camera plan, approved in December, until precedent had been set. Three days later, Hibbard, Doran and Jonson voted against waiting.
Their reason? The months ahead would give plenty of time for all uncertainty to end.
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.