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St. Pete Beach puts red light cameras on hold

ST. PETE BEACH — The commission took a half-step Tuesday toward installing red light cameras in the city.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the commission approved a new ordinance authorizing the cameras, but stopped short of actually signing a contract with the firm that would install and monitor driver behavior.

That final step may never be taken for a number of reasons:

• Bills in the state Legislature that would alternatively ban or severely restrict the number of tickets that could be issued as a result of the cameras.

• Tuesday's mayoral election could change the commission's voting majority on the red light camera issue.

Mayor Mike Finnerty, a strong supporter of red light cameras as a "safety issue," was joined by Vice Mayor Jim Parent and Commissioner Al Halpern in approving the ordinance Tuesday.

But if challenger Steve McFarlin, who is opposed to installing the cameras, wins Tuesday, he would form a new majority with Commissioners Marvin Shavlan and Bev Garnett, who voted against the ordinance.

The earliest the issue might come back to the commission is mid-May, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield, assuming that the effort to ban the cameras in the Legislature is defeated.

Until then, the ordinance would "sit dormant," Bonfield said, on the books, but not activated.

"Getting a ticket in a tourist town doesn't set a good example. I don't want to be known for it," Shavlan said, as he also cited statistics that red light cameras can cause more, not fewer accidents.

"Other studies show that there are economic as well as safety benefits," Parent said, rebutting the studies Shavlan used. "If we can save one person from getting whacked, it is a good idea."

Garnett joined Shavlan's objections, saying red light cameras "wouldn't work that well for our city."

Halpern, who said he sees drivers "blowing red lights all the time," saw "no downside" for the red light camera program and even asked, to much laughter, whether the city could install cameras to catch jaywalkers.

"Yeah, when people start wearing license plates," Bonfield responded.

Resident Rosemary Manning said she was angry when she got a ticket from South Pasadena in the mail.

"Our business people are upset. This will hurt our visitors," said McFarlin, whose ex-wife also got a ticket in South Pasadena.

"It will leave a bad taste in their mouth when they get home. It will be awfully hard to get tourists and commerce back here," McFarlin said.

Several intersections — including 75th Avenue at both Blind Pass and Gulf Boulevard — have been identified as suitable for red light cameras.

Violators would be fined $158, with $75 going to the city and $83 to the state.

The city's portion of the fines first would be deducted from the provider's monthly fee before any money was received.

This month, both St. Petersburg and Tampa decided to install red light cameras at some of their most dangerous intersections.

Three other Pinellas County cities already have red light cameras: Kenneth City, South Pasadena and Oldsmar.

At least 26 cities in Florida use them, according to the Florida League of Cities, and 13 cities and one county have been sued over tickets issued based on videos or photos taken by the cameras.

Republican state Rep. Robert Schenck, who sponsored one of the bills now under consideration in the state Legislature, says municipalities using the cameras are effectively charging drivers "a hidden tax."

St. Pete Beach puts red light cameras on hold 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 5:31am]

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