ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster has decided to put up more red-light cameras, but he didn't tell the City Council.
The news — delivered by a frequent camera critic during the public comment period — brought Thursday's council meeting to a halt.
Seven of the eight council members did not know the city was planning to add nine more cameras to intersections. They asked the mayor for answers.
"We learned from the public that more cameras are going up now," council member Jeff Danner said. "That's disingenuous to us and the public."
Foster told council members the cameras are in the "permitting and design" process and aren't scheduled to be installed until November. He said he would have administrators give them an update at a later meeting.
His response didn't please the group.
"Do we have control of this program?" council member Wengay Newton asked.
"Your control is to kill the program," replied City Attorney John Wolfe.
Tension grew from there.
Strife has been mounting between Foster and the council for the last two months. Recent meetings have been punctuated by finger pointing, sniping and unfulfilled requests for information.
On Thursday, the group argued about the cameras for nearly an hour.
At one point, Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran quipped, "Hopefully, we'll hear from the public if anything else changes."
The city installed red-light cameras at 10 intersections in September 2011. Warnings were given the first month, citations started in October.
After one year, the council had expected to get an update to determine if the cameras reduced traffic accidents. Critics say the program is a revenue generator, not a safety measure.
Foster said the nine new cameras will be mostly installed at intersections that already have cameras. Motorists, he said, have figured out how to avoid citations when traveling certain directions.
Danner wasn't satisfied.
"We want to see a year's worth of data to make sure the cameras have the safety effect," he said. "Adding them before the year goes against this council. If crashes aren't down, we should abandon the program."
Several hours later, the group again voiced frustrations, this time about how Foster and his administrators refuse to provide records and answers on public matters.
"It's unfortunate that we have to get information from our constituents or we're relegated to stand in line with the press," Curran said. "I don't want to have to call the press to ask them if they know more than me."
Council member Jim Kennedy, who often votes to support Foster, said his colleagues shouldn't be surprised about the cameras, adding: "I knew they were coming. I had conversations with the mayor."
Another Foster ally, council member Bill Dudley, said he was "caught off guard" about the cameras.
Council member Steve Kornell offered this solution to not getting information: The group could use their power to start rejecting contracts that Foster recommends.
Newton pleaded with Foster to operate like former Mayor Rick Baker by never making the group learn about news from reporters or the public. He said Foster operates "under shrouds of secrecy" and tries to "play keep away" from the group.
"Information sharing is crucial," he said.
At times, Foster leaned backward in chair and looked at City Administrator Tish Elston as council members opined.
He then spoke.
"Hopefully, this has been therapeutic," Foster said softly while leaning forward. "A lot has been said. Everyone took a deep breath. I deeply respect you all."
The mayor reminded the group that he knew what it felt like to be a council member, he was a member of their team for 10 years. Without naming names, Foster explained his secrecy by saying some members always seem to divulge what he tells them to reporters.
He said he hoped Thursday's discussion changes their relationship.
"Respect and trust are earned," Foster said. "They are mutual. This could be a new understanding."
Time will tell.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.