Tampa's City Council earned a B for style and a C for substance Thursday for going only half the distance in challenging Mayor Bob Buckhorn's plans to operate surveillance cameras across the city. Council members assailed the administration for not appearing as the board took public comment on whether and how to use the cameras. The mayor's no-show was a needless snub and a tactical mistake. But the council wilted by focusing on how to accommodate the mayor and shift any public blame rather than confront the serious privacy issues at play.
Buckhorn announced this month he intended to keep using an estimated 60 cameras that the city bought with a federal security grant for the Republican National Convention. Buckhorn dismissed any privacy concerns, called mothballing the system a waste, and said the only issue was whether to keep all the cameras downtown or ship some out to the higher-crime neighborhoods.
Buckhorn's failure to send his chief of staff, city attorney or any other senior aide to what was the council's first debate on whether the controversial cameras should be kept on a permanent basis sent a signal the administration cares little about public input or the sensitivity it needs to show in balancing safety with privacy rights and in using the devices in a responsible way.
But the council performed badly, too. Members (with the exception of Mary Mulhern) were more interested in saving face with the mayor and public and exploring how to get some of the cameras in their districts than they were about seriously examining whether the cameras were abusive — or even effective. Chairman Charlie Miranda was right that the administration needed to put forward a concrete plan, not a concept. And member Harry Cohen framed the right approach to balancing safety and privacy concerns.
But the conversation painted a false choice between fighting crime and preserving liberty. There was no discussion of the privacy protections that people expect in public places, and no discussion about the stigma that cameras can bring to residential areas. Members raved instead about how the cameras could stop illegal dumping or help attract suburban residents scared of downtown. Member Yvonne Yolie Capin summed up her remarks by obliterating two centuries of American political thinking, declaring that privacy was "a modern concept" brought on by air conditioning and the demise of the front porch.
This debate falls far short of the serious case that Buckhorn and his council accomplices need to make. The public needs to hear how the cameras will do much beyond move crime from one place to another, and how invading privacy and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a regular basis is reasonable as a marketing tool to improve the perception of a city that is already safe.