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Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017

Gulfport ends its red-light camera program amid legal concerns

GULFPORT — Another Tampa Bay area community is turning off its red-light cameras as a new state report casts doubt on whether the traffic safety devices have made roads safer.

Gulfport City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to end its contract with American Traffic Solutions, the firm that has operated the city’s cameras since 2011. Council members said they had concerns about the legality of the cameras and the accuracy of the system after the number of violations spiked this year after equipment was updated.

The legal concerns come from a recent ruling by three Pinellas circuit judges in December who sided with a paralegal who successfully took the city to court and got her citation quashed by arguing that it had illegally delegated law enforcement duties to its camera firm.

“Too many people feel this is invasive,” said Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson. “We have to find a better way to improve our safety.”

Gulfport’s decision coincides with the release last week of a report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that found that intersection crashes in communities with camera programs has risen by an average of 14 percent since cameras were first installed. The number of crashes involving serious injuries also rose by almost 30 percent, the report states.

The report states that an increase in vehicle miles may be behind the rise. Nonetheless, the lack of a reduction in crashes may receive attention in Tallahassee where Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, has filed a bill to prohibit cameras statewide.

“There is no longer any question — red-light cameras do not make intersections safer,” said Matt Florell, a St. Petersburg entrepreneur and software engineer who led the campaign for St. Petersburg to end its camera program. “The experiment is over. It’s time to take the cameras down.”

Gulfport’s contract with camera firm American Traffic Solutions will still run through March meaning violations will still be issued to drivers who run red lights at the three intersections where cameras are installed.

St. Petersburg, Temple Terrace, Oldsmar and Brooksville have also either scrapped or defunded their camera programs. Still, cameras are in use in more than 60 Florida communities including Tampa, Hillsborough County and Clearwater.

Gulfport has only three red-light cameras in operation. In the first four years of the program, the city issued almost 16,000 citations resulting in fines totaling $1.7 million. Of that, $794,000 has gone to the state and $708,000 to ATS leaving $262,000 for the city.

Council members said they were concerned that the number of violations rose last year by roughly 2,400 following a software and equipment upgrade performed by ATS in March.

ATS account manager David Mast said that was the result of the company replacing a faulty under-road sensor and that the system was working accurately.

But he said he could not offer the city any refunds for the period when the camera program was not capturing all violations.

A series of lawsuits against cities that run camera programs including Gulfport was also a concern for the council.

The city recently lost the circuit court case against the paralegal who overturned her red-light camera ticket and also settled another case out of court paying $2,600 in legal fees to an attorney who appealed his $158 citation. The paralegal is filing for the city to reimburse her legal costs.

“My problem with this is if we enter and keep this up, we will continue in the legal process as far as constituents having to sue us,” said Vice Mayor Yolanda Roman.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: codonnellTBO

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