Pinellas court clerk asks cities to stop using red light cameras

One traffic light, at State Road 580 and Tampa Road in Oldsmar, had experienced issues with the timing of yellow, or caution, lights. Though the problem was fixed, questions persist about whether thousands of drivers were unfairly ticketed, using red light cameras, at the intersection.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

One traffic light, at State Road 580 and Tampa Road in Oldsmar, had experienced issues with the timing of yellow, or caution, lights. Though the problem was fixed, questions persist about whether thousands of drivers were unfairly ticketed, using red light cameras, at the intersection.

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, whose office processes thousands of tickets from red light cameras, is urging local cities to stop issuing citations until flaws with them are fixed.

In letters sent Friday to mayors and city council or commission members in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport, Kenneth City, Oldsmar and South Pasadena, Burke said the state law authorizing red light cameras has created an unfair process for citizens.

He cited eight issues, including the way drivers receive citations, the way fines are increased if not paid on time and how tickets are issued to vehicle owners, not drivers. He said there is no way for a driver to challenge the ticket until after the fine rises. The $158 citations jump to $264 if not paid within 30 days.

"They have been a headache ever since we started getting these citations," Burke said on the telephone. "The higher fine is the biggest complaint."

Burke faulted state legislators for quickly implementing the laws regulating the programs.

"They pushed things through quickly and don't think about how they affect people," he said.

Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank said she shares Burke's concerns.

"Frankly I was never enthralled with the idea to begin with," Frank said. "I think it all ought to go through the court system, that there ought to be a paper trail."

At this time, Frank is not planning to pen her own letters to other elected officials, saying she would like to see what further action Burke takes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster read the letter Monday and said officials "will be assessing the merits of the issues" raised by Burke. He declined to comment until he talks to Burke.

Clearwater, which has red light cameras at two major intersections, is in a six-month contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, an Arizona company.

Mayor George Cretekos, who voted against the program, isn't sure whether the city has the power to stop issuing tickets without breaking its contract with the vendor. "I would like to talk to our city attorney," he said.

The letter could be discussed at a Clearwater City Council meeting next week. At that time, the council will get a report on the numbers of violations and accidents at the two intersections, City Manager Bill Horne said.

Burke said he also sent letters to seven counties and the Florida League of Cities, which lobbied for the law in 2010.

The letters went to state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Hooper chairs a transportation subcommittee; Brandes chairs a transportation committee.

Burke said his staffers spend a "disproportionate amount of time" handling complaints about camera tickets compared to red light tickets issued by officers on roadways, he said.

"They're disgusted by this process," Burke said of citizens. "They lash out at clerks on the phone."

Brandi Williams, the director of the Hillsborough clerk's traffic department, said clerks have processed 30,200 citations in the past year from Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace.

"It has drastically increased our workload," Williams said.

St. Petersburg's 22 cameras caught 36,185 drivers running red lights between November 2011 and October.

Burke worries the cameras give Pinellas County a bad name with tourists who get cited while driving rental cars, he said.

He cited a Delray Beach photographer who never had a chance to pay the lower fine because of the delay in mailing the ticket to a rental company, which then forwarded the ticket.

"It is up to the government to represent the interest of our citizens," Burke wrote. "When a statute, which is discretionary to implement, is so flawed, it should not be implemented."

Cities created the programs in the name of safety, but critics accuse officials of using the citations simply to raise revenues.

Burke said he doesn't expect mayors to halt the programs voluntarily. But he expects some council or commission members to broach the issue at meetings.

St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell, who voted against the cameras, prefers to end the program. But he said he would support an ordinance creating a moratorium until the flaws can be fixed.

"Some of these issues need to be resolved," he said. "It's a little concerning."

Times staff writers Mike Brassfield and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Pinellas court clerk asks cities to stop using red light cameras 02/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:50am]

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