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Council splits 3-3 on Ybor City spy-cams

They debated it, argued about it, and then they voted on it.

But they can't do anything about it.

No matter what the Tampa City Council decides about the controversial cameras and face-scanning software being used in Ybor City, the final call lies with the mayor.

That's because the council already had approved the use of the software, and any termination of the city's agreement with the software's makers is an administrative move _ something only the mayor can do.

Mayor Dick Greco is on vacation, but an ally and city official said Thursday he's confident that Greco will support keeping the face-scanning software. Fernando Noriega, the city's administrator of development, said he knows from conversations with Greco that he approves of the surveillance.

"People are trying to say that everything is rosy in Ybor City," Noriega said. "It's not the truth."

Noriega's comments came Thursday afternoon, shortly after the City Council split 3-3 in a vote on whether to favor continued use of the software.

Council members Linda Saul-Sena, Shawn Harrison and Rose Ferlita wanted to terminate the city's relationship with the makers of the facial recognition program, Visionics Corp., a New Jersey company. They said the dangers of misidentification and violations of privacy were too great.

Members Bob Buckhorn, Mary Alvarez and Gwen Miller voted to keep it, saying the police should be given the chance to see the one-year trial contract to the end.

Chairman Charlie Miranda, who is acting mayor this week, was not at the meeting.

After the meeting, Buckhorn said the debate by the council was immaterial, but "I think people look to council as their forum. While we aren't the final arbiters of the decision, it's a great opportunity to have the debate."

Some critics of the software said that had there been a public hearing before the council voted to enter into the agreement, the controversy that has ensued might have been avoided.

In May, the council quickly and quietly approved the contract between the city and Visionics Corp., but half the members said later they didn't realize what they were voting for. A few weeks later, when the Tampa Police Department invited the media to check out its latest crime-fighting tool, there was a ripple across the nation. Civil liberties groups and some politicians decried the technology as an intolerable government intrusion into people's lives.

The software scans the faces of people on the streets of the Ybor City entertainment district and compares them with the countenances of up to 30,000 wanted criminals stored in a database.

So far, the software has made four matches. But on further inspection by officers, they were determined to have been mistakes, said police Maj. Rick Duran. Authorities did not confront the people, he said.

During Thursday's council debate, Alvarez said she thinks Tampa should take advantage of the free trial period because it might make Ybor's streets safer.

"How do we know the software is going to work if we don't give it a chance?" Alvarez said.

Saul-Sena asked that the contract be terminated, saying people whose ancestors came to America for liberty and freedom are finding those same rights are being violated as they stroll in the historic district.

Harrison said his main concern was using Tampa as the nation's test market.

"I don't know why the city of Tampa has to be the guinea pig," he said.

A few members of the public appeared before the City Council to praise the software's use, saying they felt safer for it. But more than a dozen people appeared to oppose it, some with stickers of bar codes on their foreheads and T-shirts.

"We don't want to be the birthplace of the public use of this technology," said Tampa resident Bill Hamilton. "You risk the reputation of Tampa."