Red light cameras headed to another vote Thursday in St. Petersburg

Published Mar. 4, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Wengay Newton will once again try to persuade his colleagues Thursday to kill the city's red light camera program.

This time he might have a chance.

Newton plans to ask the council to cancel the city's contract with the Arizona-based camera vendor American Traffic Solutions. He also wants the city to refund money to nearly 2,500 drivers who were ticketed at intersections where it was determined the yellow light signal time was calculated incorrectly.

"We know there's something wrong with the program," Newton said. "We have a moral obligation to act."

On the heels of an hourslong workshop last week at which the mayor and police chief defended the program and frequent camera critic Matt Florell raised new issues, Newton said he feels there's been a shift in attitudes.

"I think council should execute the only power we have in this and just kill it," he said.

As of Monday, Newton had three other members on his side: Steve Kornell, Amy Foster and Darden Rice.

A fifth vote would still be needed for any action to happen.

Council members Jim Kennedy, Bill Dudley and Charlie Gerdes have said they want to keep the cameras.

Council member Karl Nurse has supported the program in the past, but recently expressed doubts about its sustainability.

"I would be open to ending the contract no later than the end of September, perhaps earlier than that," Nurse said Monday. "I'll listen to the arguments before I commit to ending it right this moment."

But it's possible Nurse wouldn't have to go that far for the program to die.

Gerdes, a lawyer, said he has a court hearing Thursday and, depending on how long it lasts, may not make it to the council meeting. If a vote is held in his absence, there would be a majority to kill the contract.

At last week's meeting, Nurse pressed for answers about when the city might reach a tipping point when revenue from the cameras is less than their cost.

In touting the success of the two-year program, city officials have said the number of crashes and violations have dropped considerably. Fewer tickets mean less revenue, the majority of which goes to the state and camera vendor anyway.

Of the $158 drivers pay, $83 is sent to the state, and the rest goes to the city, which then gives most of it to the camera vendor. What's left, which officials last week said was about $21, goes into the city's general fund.

Nurse said he fears the city is soon approaching the point where it will no longer break even. He calculated the city netted about $11,000 from 1,043 tickets in January.

Outside the city, there's already debate at the state level about red light cameras. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a bill to repeal the state's law allowing the cameras, citing a study that showed no need for them.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, however, has not wavered in his support of the cameras. He has said the city always planned to re-evaluate the program after its third year anyway, but for now the program is working — despite continued questions by local camera critic Matt Florell.

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Florell went to city staffers several weeks ago and told them the yellow light timing at a particular intersection — First Avenue S and 34th Street — was calculated incorrectly. The mistake, he said, means several thousand drivers were cited unfairly.

Last week, city officials acknowledged they changed the timing at that intersection, and two others in February, after studying the issue themselves. Florell said the total number of drivers who were unfairly ticketed was close to 2,500.

Kriseman has rejected the idea of refunding drivers, saying the state ultimately approved the timing of the lights.

Gerdes said he's not sure the city would be able to give drivers back the full $158, but said the city should hand over its part.

"If we made a mistake and the state approved our mistake … that doesn't change the fact it was a mistake," Gerdes said. "It's important for us to administer the program as correctly and accurately as we can."