Palm Coast Council May Consider Red-Light Camera Referendum, But Wants More Talk
FlaglerLive | May 6, 2014
“I don’t think we’re going to solve the red-light camera issue here tonight,” Palm Coast City Council member David Ferguson said Tuesday evening. Because of various controversies, revelations and angry words from two local judges, red-light cameras have focused the attention of courts, residents and city officials with increasing intensity over the last few weeks, putting in question the system’s legitimacy, and perhaps its existence.
But Ferguson was right. There were no dramatic moves Tuesday evening among council members or from the city manager. A dozen members of the public addressed the issue, as did City Manager Jim Landon, as did most of the council members and the mayor. But in the end, the most conclusive action was that the council should talk the matter over more thoroughly at a workshop soon.
There’s a move afoot in the city to place a referendum on the November ballot to remove the red-light cameras from city intersections. It’s not clear whether the initiative will make it to the ballot: the petitions are due May 19 at noon. If it does, the question will be in voters’ hands, and the results will be binding: the city will have to follow voters’ wishes—removing the cameras if a majority demands it, keeping them if not.
The most that council members were interested in is exploring that approach, including having the council itself initiate a referendum, in which case the council would have to have its ballot language drafted by June 20.
“I need to know more about what the city can and cannot do,” council member Bill McGuire said. “I see the red-light camera program as something that’s good for our citizens. I supported it before, I support it now. I will not support unilaterally cancelling the contract with ATS,” because he doesn’t want a fatality on his conscience. On the other hand, he said, “I would support a referendum. If the majority of the electorate in the city of Palm Coast say we don’t want them and we don’t care what happens once they’re gone, then I can abide by that.”
A dozen people addressed the council on the red-light cameras. Several people spoke in favor of the cameras, saying they know how to follow the law. But a clear majority spoke either against the cameras or in favor of a referendum that should settle the matter. Critics were especially displeased with the fact that the majority of the revenue generated by fines from red-light tickets goes either to the state or to the private company that runs the system./ Palm Coast gets a small share.
Diana Lebrun, “I used to be that person who sat back and said hey if you don’t want a red light violation, don’t run a red light,” Diana Lebrun said, “but there’s so much dissention over this subject, I think it’s holding us back. The only way we can solve this is to put it on the ballot, put it on a referendum.”
One man couldn’t understand how he had received a red-light violation since he was adamant that he did not run red lights, though he had an inkling that it could have been a turn on red that triggered it. In that case, he had no idea what was an admissible turn on red and what wasn’t under the law.
Alan Peterson, the former Flagler County commissioner and Palm Coast City Council member—it was on his watch that cameras were first approved, in 2008—said that when he first approved the cameras, it was for a small number: 10. Since then the number has grown fivefold. He suggested conducting more rigorous studies on existing cameras to decide either whether they are achieving their aim (to make intersections safer) or whether they could be removed from specific locations—but not from all locations.
Landon said the cameras have achieved their goal, if that goal was to change drivers’ behavior: the number of citations has gone down over time, since the cameras were first installed in 2008. That strongly suggests that drivers are more careful. In 2008, for example, 10 cameras issued 12,000 citations. In 2013, 43 cameras issued 25,000 citations, Landon said. This year in four months, the annualized is a little over 13,000 citations over the year. “The number of people running red lights in Palm Coast has gone down substantially,” Landon said.
That said, the city manager added, the program, when it started, was to be a simple, like an elaborate parking ticket. It was to send a citation out, cost $125, none of it going to the state. “When the state as I would call it hijacked the program” and changed it, it caused “a real bite” on the system. Now the citations can be transferred to the state system, converting tickets into traffic tickets that can also cause drivers to lose their driver’s license, in addition to bearing the cost of much higher fines than the original $158. “That was never the intent,” Landon said.
The system has been especially complicated by the conversion of tickets into state-issued traffic citations, which involve state courts, and have now angered the clerk of court, who claimed last week in a much-publicized court hearing before County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens that the city was improperly dismissing—or telling drivers that it could dismiss—traffic citations that have converted into state-issued tickets. Landon stressed that, contrary to what the judge said last week, the city does not stand to make more money when tickets are dismissed, as opposed to when they go through the court system.
All of that has led Landon to start discussions with American Traffic Solutions, the private, Arizona-based company that runs the cameras in Palm Coast at no cost to the city, to potentially alter the existing contract with ATS, which runs through 2019. The talks are producing various options. “We’re not ready to discuss what those are,” Landon said, though they would entail such options are fewer cameras, ending the contract or shortening the term of the contract.
Ideally, Landon said the first violation should be a warning, at no cost to drivers. But the state doesn’t allow that option. For now, the city is trying to “come up with a solution that reduces the divisiveness of this issue,” Landon said—a divisiveness that creates the impression that the system is unfair, and undermines its effectiveness.