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Tampa City Council shocked when City Hall brass doesn't show for RNC camera workshop

TAMPA — The trust that the Tampa City Council has in Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration took a beating Thursday.

The subject was the future use of a $2 million network of surveillance cameras purchased for the Republican National Convention.

The setting was a workshop the council scheduled six months ago to discuss the post-convention plan for the cameras.

The surprise — at least to council members — was that no top members of Buckhorn's administration were present to hear their concerns.

"Unconscionable," Mike Suarez said.

"We were assured that we would have an opportunity to look at this," said Yvonne Yolie Capin.

"I am completely floored," Harry Cohen said. "To me, it is a signal that our input is not wanted.''

Buckhorn later said he had asked police to show council members the cameras in action so they would be informed for their discussion.

Beyond that, he said he wasn't aware that council members had further questions, nor does he believe his administration has a problem with council.

"I think we've had the most open relationship with City Council that any mayor has ever had," Buckhorn said. "If someone has a question, they can pick up the phone, and they can ask us. To say that we aren't available or that my staff is not forthcoming with them is just not accurate."

The mayor has said he wants to keep the surveillance cameras focused mainly on downtown, though he's open to using them in other parts of the city, depending on the technical feasibility and the costs.

In an interview last week, Buckhorn said the council's "only role" regarding the future use of the cameras would be to approve a contract or an expenditure.

"We wouldn't even be coming to them … until a year from the time we make the final payment, which we haven't even made yet," he said. "So, literally, this discussion about the cameras and the deployment of the cameras is not even germane until over a year from now."

Thursday's workshop had its roots in the council's March 1 vote to buy the cameras from Miami-based Aware Digital.

The city used money from a $50 million federal grant for the purchase. But police walked the item onto the agenda the day before the meeting. Officials told the council it needed to vote on the purchase immediately.

Saying she didn't have time to do her homework, council member Mary Mulhern voted no. While leery, other council members gave their approval after top city officials said there could be further discussion after the convention.

"I have no issue on the community weighing in on where these cameras are going to be used," police Chief Jane Castor told council members then.

At the same meeting, City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. told council members he, Castor and other members of the administration could make a report on the issue after the RNC, and "then you can weigh in."

Initially, police said they were going to purchase about 60 cameras. Ultimately, the RNC security grant paid for 119 cameras:

• 58 for monitoring crowds and traffic downtown.

• 20 computer-monitored cameras that can analyze scenes and send alerts to officers when they spot unusual patterns of activity (like a box truck pulling into a no-parking area).

• 25 to replace outdated cameras the Police Department already had.

• 16 mounted on five trailers that can be easily moved.

Since the convention, the cameras have not been actively monitored, though they continue to record.

That bothered some speakers at the workshop.

"I currently have an expectation of privacy that I'm not being surveilled 24 hours a day walking down the streets of Tampa despite Mayor Buckhorn's assertion that we are used to being surveilled," said Jason Cronk, who chairs the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County.

But Heidi Damon, who was nearly raped and killed during a 2009 attack in an Ybor City parking garage, encouraged officials to continue looking into the best uses for the cameras, which "at least show people that you're being watched."

"I do not personally have a problem with there being cameras on every single corner," she said.

Council member Frank Reddick said he wants to deploy some of the cameras to catch illegal dumpers in his East Tampa district.

Cohen supported that, along with exploring the idea of deploying them at city parking lots and garages.

Moving the cameras, however, could cost well over $10,000 each, depending on the new locations, the availability of poles and other factors.

The cameras' maintenance cost, which kicks in a year after the city formally accepts the system, is estimated to start at about $186,000 a year and is expected to rise as the system ages.

Opposing the cameras' use, Mulhern said studies here and in Great Britain have shown they have little or no effect on crime.

"I think we would be fine without them," she said.

Still, the council voted to ask Castor, Shimberg and other officials for a detailed report on issues regarding the future deployment of the cameras. That report is due Oct. 4.

Tampa City Council shocked when City Hall brass doesn't show for RNC camera workshop 09/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 20, 2012 11:43pm]
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