TAMPA, Florida - By a 4-3 vote, Tampa's city council voted against renewing its red light camera contract, sending a defiant message to Mayor Bob Buckhorn and his administration. The message, however, seemed less about the cameras, and more about communication and where profits from the program go.
All seven members of council praised how the Tampa Police Department and Chief Jane Castor administered the program, but the four members who voted against extending the program past April 6, 2014 all voiced frustrations with the mayor's office.
Red light camera (RLC) tickets generated roughly $3.5 million for Tampa in their first two years of operation, but council members were upset the profits weren't going to general revenue and safety programs.
The irony in the vote, however, is that at its current rate, Tampa's red light camera program will produce zero profit in 2014. As 10 Investigates first reported, longer yellow lights have so drastically diminished the number of citations issued, Tampa isn't projected to have any money left over after paying camera vendor ATS, barring the addition or relocation of cameras.
"We didn't anticipate this vote, to say the least," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, clearly stunned. ""I'm not clear on how you can say a program is clearly valuable then you vote to cease that program."
There were some questions for Castor about transparency in reporting crash stats after 10 Investigates exposed the agency was withholding some data to enhance the image of their program.
Last May, 10 Investigates requested crash data within a specific radius of monitored intersections, but the police department said the data couldn't be pulled. However, subsequent records requests indicated TPD had, in fact, pulled the data, and never released it because it showed accidents in the approach to RLC intersections had gone up.
Chief Castor also told 10 Investigates on Wednesday that the cameras were helping to reduce crash stats at non-monitored intersections too. But the department later admitted the data hadn't been pulled yet. When it was discovered crash numbers went up at non-RLC intersections last year, the chief told council it was still an indication the cameras have a huge effect.
But on Thursday, few councilmembers expressed concern about actual red light camera enforcement or TPD's oversight.
"My dissent is a result of the stubbornness of the (mayor's) administration not to set aside a small percentage (of profits) to go toward infrastructure," councilmember Frank Reddick said.
"The city should take some of (its red light camera) revenue and use it to increase safety even more," councilmember Mary Mulhern said.
"This is about behavior change; this is not about the money," councilmember Lisa Monteleone rebutted.
Tampa's red light camera program will continue into April, giving Mayor Bob Buckhorn time to re-group and address council's concerns. It may also give the city the opportunity to possibly renegotiate its contract for lower fees now that the revenue numbers have dipped so drastically.
Buckhorn, ever-keen to public perception, declined interviews Thursday, instead choosing to issue a statement:
"For me, the public's safety is always the paramount issue at stake.
"I will work with Tampa City Council over the next week to reach an agreement and will do what I can to make them feel more comfortable with the way red light camera revenue is being utilized to ensure driver, cyclist, and pedestrian safety within the City of Tampa.
"The problem is with the drivers who run a red light, breaking the law and putting others in danger.
"We know that red light cameras work in Tampa. They have changed driver behavior and kept our streets safer. They are an important tool in keeping the public safe."
10 Investigates revealed e-mails on Wednesday that showed how Buckhorn, Castor, and American Traffic Solutions worked together to share talking points and control the public perception of red light cameras. After council's surprising Thursday vote, it appears all parties quickly went back to work on damage control.