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State lawmakers file bills to fix problems with red-light camera law

Florida lawmakers filed legislation this week that they hope will address defects in the state's red-light camera law.

Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, and Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, filed bills this session to reform red-light cameras. For now, the bills seek to make it easier to contest red-light camera violations by putting a greater burden of proof on governments. The bills also would ban the practice of ticketing motorists who turn right on red.

The bills — SB 1342 and HB 1061 — will be the vehicles this session to fix the state's red-light camera law, said Sen. Jeff Brandes, chairman of the transportation committee.

"What the bills look like now and what they will look like at the end," Brandes said, "won't be the same."

Last week, Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke wrote a letter to local government leaders urging them to stop issuing citations until flaws in the law are fixed. 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.

Brandes' committee is carefully reviewing Burke's letter.

"I'd want full repeal," said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "But that may not be available because we might have to buy out the contracts."

That would be costly.

American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., firm, has contracts with more than 70 cities in Florida. And that's just one company. Brandes acknowledged full repeal could cost tens of millions of dollars.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo wouldn't estimate the total value of his company's Florida contracts, but he did offer some details that indicate how much money is at stake.

The company, he said, has more than 500 cameras statewide and charges an average monthly rate of $4,750 for each one. The contracts, he added, typically last five years.

That means the firm is slated to earn a total of more than $140 million.

Both St. Petersburg and Tampa — which each signed five-year deals — included clauses within their contracts to protect them from liability if the state repeals the law.

In fact, St. Petersburg's City Council can vote to get rid of the cameras without suffering a penalty, according to Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking management.

If Tampa voided its contract without cause, it would have to pay the firm an estimated $1.1 million.

Territo declined to discuss the possibility of a statewide repeal.

"We are always willing to work with the Legislature on ways to enhance what, by almost all accounts, has been a very successful public safety initiative," he said. "The majority of Floridians recognize the dangers associated with red-light running."

Until the problems are solved, St. Petersburg decided to give some red-light runners a pass.

Rental car drivers and people who are using someone else's car will be able to get out of violations because of a flaw with the law that doesn't give them a chance to pay or contest the $158 civil citation before it jumps to a $264 traffic ticket.

Mayor Bill Foster said he was encouraged by the legislative filings and hoped lawmakers would fix aspects of the legislation he called "blatantly unfair."

"I would prefer to err on the side of caution and equity and due process," he said, "until they fix it."

Other cities may follow suit. On Tuesday, Clearwater's council will discuss Burke's concerns and what to do about them.

The Pinellas clerk said he was encouraged by the Legislature's new effort.

"Obviously," Burke said, "that's going in the right direction."

His counterpart in Hillsborough, Pat Frank, wants the law revoked, and not just because of the increased hassle it has inflicted on her staff.

"The basic premise," she said, "runs against the notion of safety."

For example, imagine someone runs 10 red lights but pays all of the infractions within the first 30 days, before they become traffic tickets. Then, on the 11th, the person crashes into another car and kills someone.

A judge would never know about the other 10 infractions because those were civil citations.

"The court," she said, "has no record of it."

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com.

State lawmakers file bills to fix problems with red-light camera law 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 10:40pm]
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