Self-inflicted wounds slay red-light cameras in St. Petersburg

A red-light camera faces north toward the intersection of 22nd Avenue N and Fourth Street on Thursday in St. Petersburg.
A red-light camera faces north toward the intersection of 22nd Avenue N and Fourth Street on Thursday in St. Petersburg.
Published March 9, 2014

NAME: Cameras, Red-Light

DATE OF BIRTH: Sept. 15, 2011

PLACE OF BIRTH: St. Petersburg

DATE OF DEATH: March 6, 2014

External examination: This autopsy begins at 9:30 a.m., March 7, 2014. Based on evidence originally presented, red-light cameras were killed by a simple majority vote of St. Petersburg City Council members the previous morning.

While this conclusion is factually correct, further examination indicates death did not come naturally to red-light cameras in St. Petersburg.

It was not simply a change in the composition of the City Council, although that was a contributing factor. And it was not due solely to the dwindling revenues produced by these cameras, although that certainly played a part in the result.

Rather, while viewing through the lens of time, it's clear the demise of red-light cameras can also be attributed to deceptive, neglectful and, regrettably, avoidable circumstances.

Evidence is plentiful, beginning with the program's conception.

On April 1, 2010, the day City Council voted to install cameras, one resident spoke in favor of the program. He told a heart-wrenching story of his brother being killed by a red-light runner. What he did not mention was he was in the business of selling red-light cameras. Further investigation cast serious doubt on the existence of any brother.

A cycle of self-serving, debatable and sometimes misleading information had begun, which continued through decedent's formative years.

Local resident Matt Florell pointed out numerous flaws in yellow-light times, data interpretation and, most recently, faulty info on the slope of roads.

As a practical matter, this led to two questions:

1. Why wasn't the city on top of this information?

2. Why did some city officials seem dismissive of this information?

Time and again, council members were given information by city staff that made it appear as if there were no issues with the program and that red-light cameras were solely responsible for a reduction in traffic accidents.

This information seemed diametrically opposed to studies done by University of South Florida researchers and a state government accountability report.

Council members were told no other Florida city was undergoing the type of scrutiny Florell was demanding, and yet Clermont, Cocoa Beach, Hallandale Beach, Hialeah, Margate, Pembroke Pines and Winter Park either abandoned cameras or were forced to issue refunds or cancel tickets in recent months.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported recently that the number of cities using red-light cameras has declined since 2012.

It seems fair to say red-light camera data is, at best, inconclusive. Yet the council never heard anything along those lines from city staff.

Rather than be embarrassed that a resident in his spare time was providing more comprehensive data than the city's staff, transportation director Joe Kubicki recently characterized Florell as a lone complaining voice.

Council member Jim Kennedy, who accepted $1,000 in campaign donations from companies affiliated with the city's red-light vendor, was equally dismissive.

In the end, the city staff was never proactive in examining red-light issues. It was never apologetic for its mistakes. It was never accountable or attentive.

The result of this willful ignorance was a growing mistrust.

In December 2011, a poll of Pinellas County residents indicated 57 percent were in favor of red-light cameras. Less than two years later, support in St. Petersburg was down to 42 percent.

Based on available evidence, it would be incorrect to assume safety or economic issues alone resulted in the termination of red-light cameras.

IMMEDIATE CAUSE OF DEATH: Serious lack of trust.

MANNER OF DEATH: Self-inflicted.