In a bizarre marathon debate, Council splits 3-2 in favor
The Apopka City Council voted 3-2 in favor of renewing the contract with American Traffic Solutions for the Intersection Safety Program – also known as the Red Light Camera Program. That’s the homogenized, boiled-down version of what happened last night. But to leave the story there is to miss the essence of what happened leading up to that split vote of what may be the most contentious issue in Apopka today.
It was a bizarre marathon of public comments, presentations and Council discussion that took over two hours. It packed the City Council Chambers with Red Light Camera detractors, Libertarians, mystified residents with City business before the Council, and an unusually large population of Orlando broadcast media personnel.
It began with 12 angry men railing against the Red Light Camera Program. And rail they did!
“These red light cameras are tyranny,” said one of the speakers. “They are Darth Vader. They are judge, jury, witness, and executioner all in one.”
One man compared the program to the oppression that King George imposed on the American colonies of the 18th-century and threatened to come back like the Tea Party and adjust the oppressor’s attitudes. That’s not the modern-day Tea Party he is talking about, but the ones from the 1700’s that dressed in Mohawk Warrior disguises, boarded three vessels docked at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, and over the course of three hours, dumped 342 chests of tea into the water, which to some degree advanced the idea of an American Revolution.
But referencing science fiction villains, and American history was not the end of this red light camera tag-team tirade.
“The Red Light Camera program is the most illegal law ever passed,” said another speaker, while another said he would have the City Council arrested for violating their oath of office, and sue them for $250,000 each. “These red light cameras are anti-American, and politicians who vote for them are tyrants,” said a man with a t-shirt stating the same message.
For each of them, there was applause at the end of their speech from the capacity crowd, and no one spoke in favor of the red light camera program during public comments.
Captain Randy Fernandez of the Apopka Police Department led off the official beginning of the City Council’s discussion on the issue with a presentation that drew on statistics, videos of drivers caught on camera behaving badly, and news accounts dispelling some of the common misconceptions about red light cameras, like shortened yellow lights and increasing rear-end crashes. Fernandez is a 28-year veteran of public safety in Apopka. He is a strong proponent of red light cameras and insists that it is a 100% safety program.
He also wanted to make it clear that while he is a proponent for red light cameras, he isn’t a spokesperson for the program.
“I’m not here to sell anything,” he said. “That’s not what my job is. What I’m saying is it’s one of the things that help us do our job. My goal and my whole heart are for the city and the people who live here and how I can help them be safe.”
He also wanted to point out that red light cameras are not the miracle worker of public safety, but rather a piece to the puzzle.
“It’s a behavior modification tool so that people think about what they are doing. Is it the panacea? No, it’s not. But if we can make them think about what they’re doing… Everybody’s been on the Turnpike. What do you do when you see a trooper in the median? You lift your foot off the gas, maybe hit the brake and look at your speedometer. That’s a behavior. And that’s the goal that I’m looking for. Red light camera programs are just one component of an overall traffic safety program. It’s a tool in our tool box. Just like a taser, or a radar gun, or fingerprint reader or DNA. They’re all tools that we use.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker was skeptical of the program’s effectiveness at the last City Council meeting, and no data he saw in the past two weeks changed his opinion.
“First let me say thanks to (APD) Chief (Michael) McKinley, Captain Fernandez and the entire APD staff for putting together the data we received,” he said. “Obviously, it helps us make a more objective decision when we’re thinking about those things. When I started thinking about this, I asked myself what is the point of the program… and Captain Fernandez said it several times – it’s about reducing violations. But if we look at 2015 over 2014 in terms of increased traffic, the data shows that traffic increased 8.75%, with a 37% increase in violations. 2016 over 2015 there was 0.9% increase in traffic with a 3.9% increase in violations. So the point I’m trying to make is that even with increased traffic volume we’re still outpacing that in violations, so we can’t draw a direct line to increased traffic as contributing to that problem.”
Becker continued his analysis of the red light program until Mayor Joe Kilsheimer asked a question.
“Commissioner (Becker) I’ve listened to your recitation of the data, and I’m still trying to understand your big point,” Kilsheimer said. “Your big point… let me see if I can state it… Is your big point that the data you’re reading doesn’t support the notion that the program reduces crashes?”
“I’m saying both – it doesn’t reduce crashes or violations,” Becker answered.
“Wouldn’t the question on the flipside be ‘does it increase safety’?” Kilsheimer asked.
“How do we define safety?” said Becker.
“It’s hard to define whether or not safety is affected because you can never tell the story of how many lives were saved or how many crashes were avoided because of the changing driver behavior,” Kilsheimer said. “That big point can only be told in anecdotal ways. Here’s what I know – at the corner of Park (Avenue) and Main (Street)… and I’ve lived in Apopka for 30 years… before red light cameras when the yellow light turned on, people would accelerate and jam the intersection. After red light cameras were installed… after a few people got tickets… people started to stop at Park and Main. So anecdotally I can tell you it has increased driver safety, but I can’t give you a single statistic that supports that other than what the police department has shown.”
“And that’s what I’m trying to do here is take out the anecdotes and go by the data they have provided,” Becker responded. “I’m trying to let the data paint a picture, and we just don’t have a lot of non-anecdotal data to make a solid decision for me personally.”
Pedestrian safety was at the forefront of why Commissioner Diane Velazquez believes the red light cameras have been effective.
“At some of the busy intersections, red light cameras provide protection for pedestrians,” she said. “Before the red light cameras, I used to see cars make a fast right turn and I would see school children just kind of race across because cars were making that right turn too fast. Now at the busy intersections, I see them stopping, and so there is safety for pedestrians to cross. To get rid of all the red light cameras would be creating that pattern all over again for the pedestrians. I want some walkability for the community. Especially for our school children. For our elderly. For many in our community who use public transportation. That is a big concern for me.”
Commissioner Billie Dean heard the audience loud and clear and became their advocate in the Council’s discussion.
“The public is not comfortable with red light cameras, and we serve the public,” he said. “We must try and work with the public. We’re not doing what the public wants us to do. The public is not happy with the red light cameras.”
Recidivism is the tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, and as it relates to red light cameras, it was the statistic that moved Commissioner Doug Bankson to a yes vote. According to the City of Apopka’s Intersection Safety Program document provided to the City Council for this meeting, the recidivism rate is 82%, which means only 18% of red light camera violators will re-violate.
“I have my personal feelings, and I have my responsibilities as a public servant, so I’ve got to weigh all of those things,” said Bankson. “Yes, there are two issues. There’s revenue, and there’s safety. One of the things that weighed on me was the recidivism rate because you can’t look at the raw data… it’s not always two-plus-two-equals-four because it’s a probability factor. We saw videos. Some of the drivers went zooming through the red light, and thankfully there was no car in front of them, and others someone was in front of them, and there was an accident. So every light that’s run increases the probability. And there’s no way to put a specific or direct correlation on probabilities other than probabilities are a factor. But the fact that recidivism is going down… that’s a solid number based on good data. That pushes me to understand there is a safety factor in it.”
“At the end of the day, the voters hire us to make decisions and sometimes those are tough decisions. And the voters hire elected officials to look at all the information. To look at everything on both sides. To weigh the pros and cons. One of the things we heard last week at the effectiveness workshop… one of the pieces of advice that we got was ‘don’t out-expert the expert’ because we are essentially lay people. We’re not public safety experts (although Commissioner Velazquez is a retired NYPD detective). But we have a police chief and a police captain, attorneys and traffic engineers who say this is an effective traffic safety program and a legal program. When you weigh all of it, in terms of creating safe conditions, this program contributes to that. So when you boil it all down, I fall on the side of this being a worthy program that deserves our support.”
He also affirmed the process of public comments and a spirited debate between the City Council.
“This has been a valuable exercise,” he said. “We have flushed out every topic. There’s not a single topic anyone has with this program that has not been expressed and vetted here tonight. We’ve done it all. We’ve done it top-to-bottom.”
Before the vote, Becker made a final rebuttal.
“I’m going to bring it back to the facts. This document that we all received… I’m not going to make an ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ proposition here. I want to base it in fact. Fact 1 – Violations have increased year-over-year for the past three years. Fact 2 – Crashes at red light intersections due to light-running have gone up. That’s a fact.”
After Kilsheimer called for a motion, both Velazquez and Bankson affirmed with the caveat that a study should be done to determine where and how many cameras should be installed. Becker agreed and took it a step further.
“The prudent thing to do would be to do the study up front. Based on those findings, let’s renew with ATS (American Traffic Solutions) or Redflex because we are basing our future direction in fact, not anecdotes.”
The 3-2 vote means the contract with ATS will be renewed, but the debate will likely continue for the coming months leading to mayoral and city commission elections in Apopka.
Kilsheimer, Bankson, and Velazquez voted in favor of the program, while Becker and Dean voted against it.