Motorists with a thousand words — perhaps some of them angry — to say about a picture of their car snapped by a red-light camera will have another venue in which to vent come July, thanks to a new state law.
The law requires cities to set up an appeals process. Currently, people appealing their tickets from the cameras go to county court. Now, the law requires cities to offer another option for appeal. To comply, they must designate hearing officers, contract for outside services or add the duties to a municipal board such as code enforcement.
Clearwater appears poised to use its Municipal Code Enforcement Board to begin hearing appeals in August. The City Council will likely make a decision Thursday.
"Are we going to get black robes and powdered wigs?" quipped Duane Schultz, the board's chairman. "Personally, I think it's a little bit of a stretch."
The city will train the volunteer board members — who typically enforce violations like unpainted houses, improper signs and other nuisances — in the appeal process.
The new law keeps the $158 fine for running a red light, but allows cities to tack on up to $250 more if they rule against the appealing party.
The law also lengthens the time to contest a ticket from 30 to 60 days, changes that state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents south Tampa and parts of Pinellas County and who sponsored the legislation, has said will treat rental-car drivers more fairly.
Other cities in the Tampa Bay region that have red-light cameras are reviewing their options.
Tampa will likely tap a parking enforcement officer or another administrative clerk to handle the appeals, said Julia Mandell, acting city attorney.
"We're just weighing the workload, who can handle the intake and outtake. Obviously, you want someone with experience with hearings. That makes it easier than training a new person," Mandell said.
St. Petersburg's City Council will decide whether to designate a code enforcement officer or special magistrate, pursue an interlocal agreement or contract with someone outside city government, said Macall Dyer, assistant city attorney.
In Oldsmar, the city will contract with a special magistrate if the City Council approves the plan later this month, said City Clerk Ann Stephan.
"We didn't want to add the extra duties to the Code Enforcement Board," Stephan said.
New Port Richey will also discuss establishing a special magistrate to handle the appeals.
Through February, 1,603 people contested tickets in St. Petersburg, 106 in Clearwater, 144 in Oldsmar, 181 in Gulfport, 342 in Kenneth City and 323 in South Pasadena, according to records from the Pinellas County Clerk of Courts.
Still, even though just over 100 people have appealed their tickets in Clearwater since April 2012, Schultz worries that the additional burden will drag out already lengthy monthly meetings, straining the patience of the public and board members alike.
"We're just a volunteer board. We're not getting paid. At this point, it's hard to say what it will be like. We're still a little bit in the dark about it."
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.