CLEARWATER — Just days after the Municipal Code Enforcement Board heard the first appeals of red-light camera violations — and tacked on fines to eight people who tried to get their tickets tossed — the city announced that it would hire a lawyer to handle future appeals.
The yellow lights at two intersections with the cameras have also been tweaked. Drivers will have less than a second more yellow light time before being slapped with a $158 fine.
State law allows cities that hear appeals to add up to $250 to the fines. Clearwater ordered most of the violators to pay $55 for administrative fees.
Some of those who lost last week stormed out of the council chambers. Others cried.
An ordinance transferring the appeals to a hearing officer should be ready for City Council review in November, said assistant city attorney Rob Surette.
A bid has been sent out for lawyers licensed to practice in Florida, Surette said.
The announcement came during a red-light camera update at a City Council work session Monday. The city has netted nearly $400,000 since the cameras started clicking for keeps in August 2012 at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road and at Chestnut Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.
Less than 1 percent of drivers at the intersections ran red lights, said Clearwater police Maj. Daniel Slaughter. Also, crashes because of red-light violations decreased markedly for eastbound traffic at the Chestnut/Fort Harrison intersection: from 18 percent to 5 percent in the past year.
Red-light crashes increased slightly over the same period at Gulf-to-Bay/Belcher, which has cameras positioned for east- and westbound traffic, Slaughter said.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said the goal was to reduce serious "T-bone" crashes. The tradeoff would be more rear-end collisions. The city should study if the law has reduced severe crashes, he said.
"That would be a real good thing for us to do," Gibson said.
Slaughter said that such an analysis was possible, but would take time. The council decided to get another update in a year — barring significant changes.
Yellow lights now allow a smidgen more time to get through the intersections — four-tenths of a second, to be exact, said traffic operations manager Paul Bertels.
The city had received complaints about suspiciously brief yellow lights, but they had never been shortened, Bertels said. The city held off on lengthening the yellow lights until the state signed off on the decision.
A state law now requires cities to offer an option for red-light camera appeals and lengthens the time to contest a citation from 30 to 60 days. Clearwater turned to its code enforcement board, made up of volunteers, as the appeals venue for drivers slapped with tickets.
But the board was reluctant to take on the responsibility. And one member isn't sad to see the line of angry ticket-waving residents go.
"It's not really a code thing. It's a law," said Mike Riordon. "People were calling us a kangaroo court. They thought they were going to see a judge."
But with the board likely to hear at least one more month of appeals, Riordon said, at least it's light work.
"To me, it's a slam dunk. It's a whole lot easier than when somebody comes in and it's a dispute over a fence or a property line," he said. "That's often pretty complicated. Red-light camera running — to me — is easy."
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. Follow him @CharlieFrago on Twitter.