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.
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.