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Clearwater to seek bids for red-light cameras

CLEARWATER — The City Council voted 3-2 Thursday to seek contractors who could install red-light cameras at two city intersections. With that vote, Tampa Bay's three largest cities, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, have now all asked for proposals to install the controversial camera systems.

Anti-camera litigation in South Florida and talk of a potential repeal in Tallahassee gave the Clearwater council pause on Tuesday, when three members suggested the city postpone its program until challenges were resolved. Mayor Frank Hibbard said "some of the facts have changed" since the council voted to pursue the cameras in December.

Yet Hibbard, Vice Mayor John Doran and council member Bill Jonson ultimately opted against waiting, saying the months-long process would leave plenty of time for statewide conflicts to settle.

"I don't think we should wait any longer than we have to wait to prevent even one death from a red-light runner," Doran said. "Issuing (a request for proposals) is not signing a contract … It's saying, 'What would you do for us?' It keeps us moving along."

A bill proposed last week by state Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican representing part of Miami-Dade County, would repeal the state law allowing red-light cameras, signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist last year. Garcia, whose parents fled communist Cuba, argued the cameras represented a dangerous overstepping of government power.

City Manager Bill Horne and dissenting council members Paul Gibson and George Cretekos recommended the council delay voting until the state legislative session ends.

"Rather than walk into the lion's den of lawsuits and challenges," Gibson said, the council should postpone. "This is just the wrong time to do it."

Police Chief Tony Holloway has said the cameras would allow the city's six-member traffic team to focus patrols elsewhere.

Over the last two years, police counted 26 fatal crashes within the city, figures show. Police said two of those crashes were related to red-light running.

Companies that apply, the city's request for proposals states, must assume all costs for the high-definition cameras. The city would retain the right to stop any intersection's cameras with 10 days' notice, or cancel the program outright with 90 days' notice.

Cameras would record the license plates of vehicles moving past a red-light sensor and transmit the footage to a city reviewer.

After weeding out false violations — the cameras can capture red-light right turns, which police said won't merit a ticket — the reviewer would send the footage to the company to mail out tickets.

Fines start at $158, with $106 tacked on as a late fee. No points are assessed and tickets can be appealed to traffic court.

More than 50 Florida communities have installed or approved the cameras, including Hillsborough County, Oldsmar, Kenneth City and New Port Richey, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports cameras.

Doran suggested Thursday that the council assemble a committee to weigh the program's objectives, assess alternatives and lead a campaign to advertise the cameras' advantages to the public. Members hesitated after debating whether the group should consist of residents or traffic experts.

Doran has supported the cameras since 2008, when he crashed into another driver after running a red light at Chestnut Street and Myrtle Avenue. The cars were badly damaged, and the other driver was cut on the cheek. Doran called the accident a "wake-up call."

The camera programs have met with stiff resistance in West Palm Beach, where defense attorneys have helped overturn dozens of tickets. Camera footage, they argued, lacked visual clarity or timestamps that could serve as indisputable evidence. The city and camera contractor American Traffic Solutions fought back, sending attorneys to defend the tickets.

The battle over cameras hasn't stopped at the state line. In Wenatchee, Wash., the city attorney has taken civic activists to court for opposing the city's program.

And last month, in Baltimore, thousands of tickets faced a potential overturn after reporters discovered they had been "approved" by a police officer months after his death. The error, officials said, began with a computer glitch.

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

By the numbers

$158 Minimum fine for running a red light.

$106 The fee for late payment of a ticket for running a red light.

2 Number of fatal crashes related to running red lights in the last two years.

6 Number of officers on the city's traffic team who will be able to focus their patrols elsewhere.

Clearwater to seek bids for red-light cameras 03/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 27, 2011 5:11pm]

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