By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
A debate is coming, and the fate of the Red Light Camera program in Apopka might be decided by the outcome.
At the June 7th City Council meeting, four items sat innocently on the Consent Agenda. (For those of you not familiar with a Consent Agenda, in general, it's a Board or City Council meeting practice which packages routine non-controversial items not requiring discussion or independent action as one agenda item.
The fourth item on the Consent Agenda, however, was a five-year contract to renew the Red Light Camera program in Apopka. And that caught the eye of Commissioner Kyle Becker.
"When we got the lead-in package on Friday there wasn't much there in the way of statistics about our program itself," Becker said during the discussion. So I would ask for a little latitude because I have about a dozen questions I want to ask. Quite honestly I'm surprised it's a Consent Agenda item, being that it's a total contract value of $5.4 million over five years."
Becker asked a question of the City staff that ultimately Apopka Police Chief Michael McKinley would answer about traffic violations.
"It's been described that there's been a 37% decrease in violations since the (program's) inception. But if I reference our City's CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), in the statistics section, that's wildly different than the story I'm seeing. We had 31,773 in 2016, and in 2011 we had 16,000."
"I'm not sure where you got those numbers from," said McKinley.
The discrepancy between the City's CAFR figures and the data that the APD continued to frustrate the discussion between Becker and McKinley until Mayor Joe Kilsheimer asked Becker to let McKinley catch up to his questioning. But Becker explained that his questioning was due to a lack of information in the lead-in packet provided by City staff.
"I made an ask that I need a certain amount of data to make a good decision on this topic. We did not have any information as part of the lead-in packet on Friday. We met over a month ago on this topic, and I made it crystal clear on the data I would need to support a rational decision on my part. So that's why I asked for latitude."
The discussion returned to violations and crashes, which caused a disagreement between Becker and McKinley on the statistics being cited.
"If I use the CAFR as my guide, violations have gone up 9,000 since 2011," said Becker. "Our crashes are up since that time period. I'm wondering what the benefit of the program is?"
"Well I'm not agreeing with your numbers," said McKinley. "My numbers are different. But I promise you Commissioner (Becker), we're not trying to mislead you with our data."
Becker released a statement after the meeting that explained his frustration with the Red Light Camera issue:
"First, I would like to say I have the utmost respect for the job Chief McKinley does for our city and our residents, our police department is second to none, and that is achieved through his hard work and the great work of all of our officers.
I think there was a little tension related to this issue due to a disconnect in the data provided by staff, and the data I was forced to research myself. I have been very transparent in the type of data I would need to make a decision on this topic and gave ample lead time to produce, and as you saw, data was fluid even during the conversation, and did not sync with our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
Since we will again vote on this matter, I won’t get into my stance on whether I am for or against, but rather, I question what the true intent is with the renewal of this program. My assumption is that the true intent is to reduce crashes and pedestrian incidents at intersections, however, leading up to the meeting, the statistics provided by staff was that even at intersections with cameras the crash rate was up 12.5%, though this statistic was updated during the course of my questioning.
As I stated when I campaigned for this seat, I am not interested in the camera program as a revenue source for our city, and if there is compelling data to support it reduces crashes, then show it. We have had this program in place for 10 years now, we should have 10 years worth of referenceable data either internally or provided by the service provider ATS.
In regards to right turns and pedestrian safety, in my research with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, intersection incidents with pedestrians make up a small percentage of total pedestrian incidents, and as many residents can attest there is a lot of jaywalking in our city outside of our intersections. I think our city would be better served by the installation of proper street lighting to promote pedestrian safety, as 74% of pedestrian fatalities occur during nighttime hours.
For me to make a fact-based decision on this topic, I need to see the data, the trends, and the financial impact of this program. If a benefit of the program is a decrease in violations, but crashes are increasing, is there truly a benefit? If violations decrease to the point the program then takes a loss financially, does the safety impact and the potential to reduce crashes then make it worth the investment from a public safety standpoint? These are all questions and conversations that need to take place, not anecdotally, but rather data-driven."
Despite the tension during the meeting, neither McKinley nor APD Captain Randall Fernandez seemed to be put off by Becker's questions.
"Commissioner Becker is a detail oriented person, just as I am, and I certainly appreciate his level of interest," said Fernandez. "I look forward to continuing to work with him to ensure we find common ground and understanding of our law enforcement programs."
"He's passionate about this topic, and we respect his passion," said McKinley. "I don't think it's anything we can't sit down and discuss with him."
The June 7th City Council meeting made clear the debate lines, but at the June 21st City Council meeting, perhaps there will be resolve on this matter. Will the Council renew the contract with ATS for another five years? Or will they end red light cameras?
One thing is for certain; you won't find this issue on the Consent Agenda.