The Palm Coast City Council is considering suspending–but not ending–its red-light camera program until courts rule more conclusively on the legality of the system.
The council came close to making just such a decision at a meeting today: that, indeed, was its attorney’s recommendation. Instead, the council told its attorney to explore the matter further, including an option several council members favor: seeking an opinion from a local circuit judge on the validity of Palm Coast’s contract with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based private company that runs Palm Coast’s dozens of red-light cameras.
“Your cleanest option is suspend it entirely and see what falls out of the tree there,” Bill Reischmann, the city’s attorney, told the council. “That’s not a risk-free option to suspend. Remember, we’re not about terminating the program.” The risk of suspending is that ATS could sue Palm Coast and have to pay damages.
“I’d rather have a judge tell me you can or you can’t, you have to or you don’t have to,” Mayor Jon Netts said.
A Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal decision earlier this fall declared a key part of red-light camera ticketing illegal, throwing a wrench in the entire system, and causing many cities to rethink their contracts with the firms providing the service, especially with ATS, which dominates the Florida market.
There are essentially two parts to the ticketing. First, a $158 “notice of violation” is issued. If the driver pays, the matter is over. If the driver doesn’t pay, the notice turns into a state-issued Uniform Traffic Citation, and it enters the legal system. Until this fall, the private companies issuing the initial notices of violation were also issuing the traffic citations. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal declared that part of the system illegal, because state law requires the tickets to be issued by a government agency. When a private company issues them, it’s illegal.
In Palm Coast, ATS had been issuing both types of citations. Starting last month, the city ordered ATS to stop issuing the Uniform Traffic Citations, but the Notices of Violation continue to be issued.
The city council wanted to know whether it was possible to suspend the entire system (as several cities in Florida have done), pending the outcome of further action by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which has agreed to re-hear the same case it just ruled on.
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On Monday, Palm Coast’s attorney and administration had a long conference call with ATS officials (the company takes a bigger dollar bite out of the red-light camera revenue than Palm Coast does, but a smaller bite than does the state). ATS wanted Palm Coast to start issuing the contested Uniform Traffic Solutions, about 200 of which are issued a month.
“I said over my dead body,” City Manager Jim Landon said. “As soon as I said that, they didn’t like to hear that, the rest of the conversation was not quite as congenial, you might say.”
The reason: Landon doesn’t want to burden city staff with work ATS is contracted to do, and that the city has neither the time nor the staff to carry out.
The Palm Coast City Council had three options, as outlined for the council by Landon.
Option One: Keep the program like it is by having all the notices of violations that have not been paid within 60 days come back to the city, for the city to decide what to do. That’s about 200 citations a month. The benefit of that is that the city would be in compliance with the court ruling. The downside is that the city would be devoting staff time to the matter that it cannot spare.
Option Two: Leave the system as it is now. Send out the initial $158 Notice of Violation, but if it’s not paid, don’t send out the follow-up Uniform Traffic Citation. That means anyone can choose not to pay the initial $158, as no one will then receive the subsequent, more expensive violation, and after 60 days of that, the city will have no right to send that notice regardless. In essence, that’s a way out of paying the ticket altogether, assuming that a court in South Florida doesn’t rule on the larger question of the system’s legality within those 60 days.
Option Three: Tell ATS that Section 27 of the contract will be invoked, suspending the program in its entirety. The positive side of that is that once the courts decide what’s right and what’s wrong, the city can go forward. In the meantime, the city stops the program. The downside is that ATS did not clarify what it would do if the city went that route. The company said it would explore its options. “You don’t know what that would be, so there’s risk involved in that option too.”
“We can presumably suspend, but we will get some push-back from ATS,” Council member Steven Nobile said, wishing for the day, he said, when he’d stop getting red-light camera emails.
Even though there was some leaning toward Option Three, council members wanted better legal cover to go that route, which is why they were were interested in seeking a judge’s opinion on whether the existing contract with ATS is valid. That would require the city filing a complaint–a lawsuit–and following it through. To get there, they want Reischmann, the city attorney, to do more homework.