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Palm Coast Memo on Red-Light Camera Clash With Court Shows Missteps and Assumptions

| May 13, 2014

Show cause. (Chester Paul Sgroi)

Show cause. (Chester Paul Sgroi)

The City of Palm Coast today submitted a 16-page memo to Flagler County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens explaining why the city had not sent a representative to a scheduled hearing on red-light traffic camera citations before the judge on April 30. That absence left Moore-Stens livid after she dialed city numbers, was placed on hold, sent to voice mail boxes and ultimately left dangling, without answers, with more than a dozen drivers in the courtroom seeking to have their traffic citations dealt with.

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The judge was ready to hold the city in contempt of court. Instead, she issued a show-cause order, requiring the city to explain why the court should not hold it in contempt for failure to appear at the hearing, and also requiring it to provide a list of people who have been issued the sort of Uniform Traffic Citations that led to the April 30 hearing.

The  memo, signed by Barbara Grossman, the city’s code enforcement manager—management of red-light camera infractions falls under the city’s code enforcement department—proffers no apologies. Rather, it outlines the last year’s history of the city’s interactions with the court regarding red-light camera infractions to show that throughout, the city had never been required to appear in court when dealing with violations in question. The city assumed, wrongly, that since that had been the case, it would remain so on April 30.

It was not an excuse for the city’s absence on April 30. Rather, it was an implicit justification of that absence, an attempt to show that the city gained nothing by not appearing, while implicitly blaming the court for not directly telling the city that its presence was required at the hearing. Whether Moore-Stens accepts the explanation on May 30 remains to be seen (she has scheduled a hearing with Palm Coast on that date), though the city’s own version of events also shows that there had been no mysteries about the April 30 hearing, that the hearing was out of the ordinary, and that city staffers’ timing in transmitting documents, and a city attorney’s illness, may have played a role in the city’s lapses.

Two separate issues are in play: the first is about the red-light camera infractions themselves, how they evolve through the city and court systems and are either paid or dismissed. The second is the conflict between the court and the city. The conflict may have been averted had the city shown up at the hearing. But the hearing would not have been scheduled had there not already been a breakdown in an understanding between the city and the court over how to deal with certain infractions.

First, the infractions system.

When the city issues a red-light camera violation through its private provider (American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that runs Palm Coast’s red-light cameras at a substantial profit), the vehicle owner receives a $158 “Notice of Violation.” At that point, the citation is like a parking ticket. The driver may choose to pay it immediately, in which case the matters ends with payment. Or the driver may choose either not to pay, or to contest. If the citation is not paid within 60 days, it automatically becomes a so-called Uniform Traffic Citation. At that point a UTC is no longer a city matter. It’s a court matter, as with moving violations. The matter must be resolved through the court. Fines can rise to $264. And if not paid within a certain time, the driver’s license is suspended. Reinstatement costs more.

Some 800 people, according to Palm Coast documentation, have seen their original tickets become UTC’s in the past year alone. The UTCs had become such an issue last summer for the court, cluttering up its docket, that Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth asked Palm Coast to revamp the system. The two sides reached an understanding. Drivers who could be compelled to pay the original $158 fine would have their UTC dismissed. The matter would not go to court. Palm Coast and ATS (and the state) would get their money. And the docket would be lighter. But Palm Coast would be required to file requests for dismissal in every such case, and wait for the clerk to sign off on the dismissal.  Month after month, that’s what Palm Coast did.

Then the city stopped waiting for the clerk’s sign off, and took it for granted that every one of its requests for dismissal would be granted. That was a mistake, because the clerk stopped granting those requests automatically.

That’s how the April 30 hearing came to be.

At the hearing, Moore-Stens claimed that Palm Coast stood to make more money from having the $158 fines paid up front, with the UTC’s dismissed, than if the cases were to go through the court system. That’s not the case: Palm Coast is paid a flat fee for the red-light camera system, no matter how many tickets are issued, no matter what type of tickets are issued.

But ATS doesn’t get a flat fee. The private company depends on as many tickets being paid as possible, to maximize its profits. When UTCs are dismissed at the court level, Palm Coast doesn’t lose, but ATS does, because no fine is generated. Palm Coast works in close alliance with ATS, but nowhere in its memos or court papers does it acknowledge that alliance. So while the judge was incorrect regarding the money’s distribution from fines, she was not entirely wrong: somewhere along the fine chain, if a fine is dismissed in court, both the state and ATS stand to lose revenue. Palm Coast is protective of its red-light camera system because it is protective of its contractor, and the guaranteed $31,000 a month it makes possible for Palm Coast.

Second, the conflict between the court and the city.

The court’s position has already been explained: it scheduled the April 30 hearing to reach a resolution regarding the way UTCs would be handled from here on. If the hearing was news to Palm Coast, its own memo suggests that it wasn’t. That was one of the surprises in the memo the city filed in court today.

The city clearly and unequivocally knew that a hearing had been scheduled on the Uniform Traffic Citation matter, involving the city. The city found that out on April 11. The hearing was scheduled on April 30.

A city staffer, Liliana Filipe—the same staffer that Judge Moore-Stens would end up speaking with by phone during the April 30 hearing—emailed the clerk to find out why the hearing was scheduled. A clerk staffer called her back to say she didn’t know why the hearing was scheduled. Furthermore, the city was aware that drivers who had requested dismissals of their UTCs were now receiving correspondence from the clerk denying their request for such dismissals, and informing them that the April 30 hearing had been scheduled. One driver contacted the city on April 15, telling Filipe of the scheduled hearing. The notices to appear, however, were directed at the drivers, and did not include the city.

On April 15, Filipe wrote Dawn Deming, a staffer at the clerk of court’s office, acknowledging that, unlike past procedures, several citations were now scheduled for a hearing before Moore-Stens, and asking what the procedure should be for dismissal. She asked a couple of other questions, and concluded with: “Lastly, is a representative for the City required to attend?”


Filipe did not get a response to the specific email, according to the city’s memo, but the city also acknowledges receiving on April 15 a document signed by Moore-Stens herself on April 11 clearly notifying the city, “on the City of Palm Coast’s Motion to Dismiss,” that the April 30 hearing was scheduled. In other words, the court was informing the city that the city’s own motion to dismiss cases were being addressed in a hearing. True, the city had not attended such hearings in the past, but only because the court had not scheduled such hearings in the past.

A city staffer sent a copy of the order to L. Robin McKinney, the city attorney who usually sits in on cases involving red-light camera citations. But the copy was sent only at 4:29 p.m. on a Friday (April 25). McKinney was at work on Monday but “did not have the opportunity to address the matter” that day, according to the memo. She then fell ill and did not return to work until the day of the hearing.

It’s not clear when McKinney was finally told that the judge had called the city, seeking someone’s presence in court, the morning of the scheduled hearing. The memo does not say. But when she did get word, the memo states, she immediately called Moore-Stens’s judicial assistant, “first leaving a message,” then being told that the hearing was over. Oddly, during the hearing itself, Moore-Stens had herself strained to get a Palm Coast official either on the phone or in person to address the matter, but failed, getting no further than Filipe, or voice mail. It’s not clear why Filipe, when first contacted, did not connect the judge with the city attorney. The memo does not say. When McKinney called to inquire about rescheduling the hearing, she learned of the show-cause order about to be issued.

The memo also makes clear that it was the city, not the clerk of court, that decided somewhere along the way no longer to follow the procedure it had adopted after the 2013 agreement with the clerk. Following that agreement, the city habitually would check the clerk’s online docket to ensure that UTCs were dismissed before re-issuing its own $158 violations, enabling drivers to pay the lower fine and end the case. But the city stopped that prudent practice and went with assumptions instead.

“When first utilizing the process,” the memo notes, “the city did not accept payment of the $158 until after the online docket reflected the dismissal; however, over time, in an effort to streamline the process, the city began processing the $158 payment prior to confirming the dismissals on the online docket.”

In other words, the memo concedes, explicitly, that the city was abrogating the clerk’s authority and assuming that UTCs would be dismissed in accordance with its requests. Wadsworth, the clerk of court, reviles anyone who steps on her authority. That misstep by the city may well be the source of Wadsworth’s decision to end the court’s informal agreement with Palm Coast, triggering the April 30 hearing.

Palm Coast claims in its memo that it never told individual drivers that their UTCs would be automatically dismissed. That’s not what some drivers told the court in April, again suggesting that Palm Coast had overstepped its authority.

Much of this may not finally amount to contempt in a judge’s eye, but it nevertheless reflects to what extent the red-light camera matter itself—as even council members and the city manager have acknowledged–has alienated the city from its residents, from other governments (the county commission had its unsuccessful bout with Palm Coast over the red-light cameras two years ago) and now from the court system.

Palm Coast’s Memorandum of Law and Facts on Red-Light Camera UTCs (2014)

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13 Responses for “Palm Coast Memo on Red-Light Camera Clash With Court Shows Missteps and Assumptions”

  1. Ken Dodge says:

    Outcomes like this were NOT what we had in mind in 1999 when we passed by a 2 to 1 margin the referendum to incorporate the Service District of Palm Coast.

  2. There are three for-profit business partners in each red light camera community: 1) the state which gets 52.5% of the revenue off the top, 2) the camera company, and 3) the local government. ALL THREE are in the business for profits – not safety.

    In virtually every case, simply adding one second to the yellow intervals would reduce straight through violations by MORE than the cameras achieve. And, per the federal research, at least 99.6% of the rolling right on red tickets go to safe drivers that presented no crash risks.

    The entire red light camera system is a for-profit money grab that the official OPPAGA report showed raised crash rates by about 12% overall. Do the three for-profit business partners care that the cameras cause more crashes? Of course they don’t care, as long as the money grab scam is profitable.

    James C. Walker, Life Member – National Motorists Association

  3. djsii says:

    Setting the minimum time of the yellow lights to 6 seconds would DRASTICALLY reduce the number of red light violations and reduce the potential for accidents as well. But, this city council does not appear tbe interested in safety………it’s just the bottom line.

  4. djsii says:

    Increasing the yellow light times to a 6 second minimum would DRASTICALLY reduce the number of red light violation and decrease the potential for intersection accidents as well. But, this city council is not interested in safety, their only concern is in preserving the ATS “cash cow”.

  5. Billy Bob says:

    If the County finds the City in contempt of court, what happens? Do they haul off to jail an $8 an hour clerk whose job it is to enter ticket data into a computer? Or do they arrest the city manager since he actually represents the City of Palm Coast and was instrumental in bringing the entire red light camera circus to town? And if they did arrest him, what then would his official position on the red light cameras become?

  6. Joe says:

    Safety my eye, if it was really about safety there would be cameras near the schools to help protect walkers, NOT one traffic signal near a school has a camera! Go figure!!!

  7. Anonymous says:

    and yes the state being the greediest and far away from all the turmoil. northwest section of the state,that the residents have to deal with.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I get the impression that a lot of people do not like the city of palm coast and wishes it never existed . maybe we should take a vote and turn everything around and bring this area back into the 90’s where we had one grocery store a hospital with 19 beds as oppose to over 110 now and a handful of doctors, good luck with that heart attack

    • Nancy N. says:

      You’re creating a false choice. You’re asking me if I’d rather walk when I’m complaining something is wrong with my car. No, I don’t want to walk – I WANT MY CAR FIXED. We don’t want to do away with the city. We want it fixed. We want the mismanagement to stop. We want it run by people who have the best interest of the citizens at heart and actually listen to them, instead of pandering to a few campaign contributors and influential residents.

  9. Rick" says:

    The message in the last paragraph of this article apparently conveys that the city of Palm Coast is quite favorably popular…..NOT!
    So, it only took the gullible & crooked P.C. council over 5 plus years to finally admitt that they’re getting it cramed up their address.
    It never was about safety.

  10. Robert Jr says:

    This red light camera issue has been pretty much beaten to death in Palm Coast. The more it gets beat the further those “so called” town councilors dig in their heels. Isn’t there enough people to sign a petition, vote and get those two, Netts and McGuire, out. They have done enough damage.

    The elected officials know the feelings of the citizens. They disregard the majority of citizens and continue to be recalcitrant in their positions. They will attempt to use the argument that the vocal citizens are not the majority and do nothing or rely on the old safety argument.

    I signed the remove the red light camera petition and contacted others to do the same. That appears to be a wasted effort on my part, because that movement has now morphed into an entirely different agenda. The petitions are not going to be submitted neither is the alternative proposal going forward to recall the remaining town councilors responsible for this contract that is locked in until 2019. There is a wait an d see approach because they don’t want to burden the citizens with the penalty for removing the cameras. Waiting and seeing isn’t going to remove the penalty clause. Waiting and seeing is only going to prolong this madness and allow those responsible to sit and continue to make outlandish policy. The town council should be focusing their efforts on removing this city from the unwarranted position as the leader in unemployment in this state.

    • barbie says:

      And now while the morphing continues and the “wait and see” policy plays out, people keep getting tickets.

      This is ridiculous. Anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to this endless back and forth has to understand by now that the installation of these cameras was NEVER about safety, it was about raising revenue. So when the cameras are removed, where does the revenue come from?

      I’m not for the cameras either–they’re a joke–but I also understand that there are more hairbrained schemes for a city government to come up with. Remember, they need that new courthouse, people! Give them time, they’ll find another way. And it will screw all of us over just as much as these idiotic “safety” cameras have.

  11. confidential says:

    Wholly agree with Nancy this time!! Sorry I could only give you one like!

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