BROOKSVILLE — To spark a conversation sure to fire up emotions, ask people what they think about red light cameras.
Hernando County Commission Chairman Dave Russell wants to give county residents the opportunity to voice their opinions during the 2014 general election.
On Tuesday, the commission will consider placing on the ballot a referendum asking voters whether they want to ban red-light cameras in Hernando County. While the question would have no bearing on the cameras operating in the city of Brooksville — the only place in Hernando where cameras exist — Russell believes there is value in holding the referendum.
"I want the people to weigh in on this thing,'' Russell told fellow commissioners last week.
Other commissioners told him they supported the referendum.
Commissioners say the cameras are an issue they hear about all of the time, and they constantly point out that the county has nothing to do with them. They also say the devices — which city officials installed as a safety measure — are a money grab.
Every meeting or two, commissioners talk about Brooksville's cameras and urge the county staff to do what they can to help motorists, especially with the length of yellow lights.
In fact, the county is working on that issue. Just last week, assistant county administrator for operations Brian Malmberg sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation, seeking approval of tweaked yellow-light times that match a new formula approved by the state.
The first lights for which the county is seeking approval to lengthen the yellow time are those in and around Brooksville, including the lights with cameras.
A separate adjustment for lights in Spring Hill is being calculated by an outside engineer, and that work should be completed within a month, Malmberg said.
But he noted that motorists will not notice a major difference in the length of the yellow lights once the timing is changed.
"We're talking tenths of a second here,'' he said.
To Russell, the value of finding out exactly how much support there is for the cameras would be valuable in educating lawmakers in Tallahassee.
"They dillydally every session,'' with the House coming to the brink of a resolution, only to have the Senate stop short of meaningful reform, he said.
One of his complaints is that people who visit the area and get tickets leave with a bad taste in their mouth about Hernando County. Numbers for red-light citations during the Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville last month were up on that Sunday over a typical Sunday, and Russell said that is troubling as the community tries to draw in more visitors.
They come to the festival, and "afterward we send them a nice little thank-you in the mail,'' he said.
While he said he has never received one of the citations, several months ago he stopped suddenly as the light was changing at one of the intersections with cameras and the vehicle behind him "ate my trailer hitch.'' The young man in the car said he couldn't stop in time, puncturing his radiator.
"I felt sorry for him,'' Russell said. "But I had to stop.''
County Administrator Len Sossamon, who has only been in the county for a year, said he was rear-ended at another of Brooksville's red-light camera intersections.
And Commissioner Jim Adkins said he narrowly escaped a similar wreck by scooting out of the way when a car behind him threatened to smash into his Camaro.
The referendum, Adkins said, "is going to be a good signal to send to the state.''
Previously, Adkins urged the commission to remove the red-light cameras at the intersections of Wiscon Road and U.S. 41, and Cortez Boulevard and Cobb Road, where the county controls the right of way.
The county attorney's office is still working on the eviction request, Adkins said.
The same week the commission talked about that, Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he was having a meal in a downtown Brooksville restaurant. Through a server, the owner told Nicholson that it was great the county was trying to remove some of the cameras and asked whether the others could be taken away, too.
The cameras were hurting the restaurant's business, the server said.
"I try to avoid going to Brooksville as much as I can,'' Nicholson said, citing the cameras.
And he said he has given up his weekend morning visits to town.
"I'm not going to take the chance of a $200 ticket for a $5 breakfast,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.