Vero red light cameras unofficially on hold as bid to make it official fails

VERO BEACH — In light of a recent court ruling out of Aventura, Fla., and concerns throughout the community about the wisdom and legality of installing red light cameras at several intersections in the City of Vero Beach, Councilmen Brian Heady and Ken Daige Tuesday asked their fellow members to place the city’s contract with the camera vendor American Traffic Solutions officially on hold until further notice, but the measure was defeated 2-3.

“So the public knows, it’s on hold, but not officially,” said Mayor Kevin Sawnick, who said he is 100 percent behind the cameras for public safety reasons.

It is unclear what, as a matter of policy, “unofficially on hold” status means for the city and the future of the cameras.

“It’s been no secret that I’ve been opposed to the cameras,” Heady said, and continued, “We recently had a court decision that was not favorable and the studies I’ve seen have shown that it’s not a safety issue at all, that it’s a revenue issue that’s backfired.”

Heady had the discussion of the red light cameras placed as an emergency item on Tuesday’s agenda not only due to his personal opposition to them, but also because he had been made aware that at least two County Commissioners — Gary Wheeler and Joe Flescher — had come out forcefully against the cameras. Heady said before the meeting that he felt that the complex legal and logistical issues should be discussed in public, not just in private.

“Ninety percent of what I did today was an effort to get things on the public record,” Heady said after the meeting, which ran from 9:30 a.m. until about 5:30 p.m.

Last month, individual council members were pulled into private meetings with City Manager Jim Gabbard and Police Chief Don Dappen. Heady said he was told Gabbard and Dappen were meeting with each city council member to garner a consensus about going forward with the red light cameras in lieu of taking the matter back to council in a public meeting.

The last time the issue came up on Dec. 1, Dappen met with a multitude of questions and concerns from former Councilman Charlie Wilson, who had asked Dappen to investigate the status of pending legal action and proposed legislation in Tallahassee and come back to the council to allay their concerns.

On Feb. 16, Daige had raised the issue of the private meetings during his matters, when he informed the council and the public that he had required staff to audiotape and take minutes of his meeting and that the records were on file with City Clerk Tammy Vock.

Daige asked what the cost would be if the city notified ATS that it would not want to go through with the contract. It was said that ATS would be able to collect for any expenses it has incurred planning for the Vero camera system and that the company might also ask for some specific performance of the five-year contract.

“What are the expenses to date?” Daige asked, and was told that Deputy Police Chief Dave Curry would find that out and get back to council.

Daige asked if the staff had notified ATS in writing that the status was on hold so the city would not rack up any future expenses. It was stated that no written notice had been given and Councilman Tom White added that the city didn’t want to trigger any exit clauses of the contract by doing so.

Heady questioned whether the impetus to install red light cameras had come from the city council.

City Manager Jim Gabbard said that the cameras were Dappen’s idea, but that a previous council had approved both the concept and the contract with ATS, which is headquartered out of Scottsdale, Ariz.

In Dappen’s absence, Deputy Chief Curry explained where ATS is in the process of installing the Vero system. He said they have completed traffic studies and that the locations of the cameras have already been chosen.

“They have not started obtaining right of way,” Curry said.

Curry said the company places the cameras not on existing traffic control equipment, but on adjacent private or public property after negotiating permission from the owner.

The Florida Department of Transportation, it was stated in the meeting, will not grant permission to mount cameras to its property, citing concerns about pending state legislation and regulation.

Curry also stated that the county was “okay” with the installation, but it’s unclear if the county has been formally approached for any permission.

Assistant City Attorney Wayne Coment, who is the city’s expert in this matter, reiterated Curry’s statements that ATS was amenable to waiting until after the end of the legislative session and said this year’s proposed bill has “a good a chance as it’s had” of passing. Many previous bills affirming the use of red light cameras have failed in Tallahassee.

“If the legislature doesn’t act and the courts keep handing down rulings, the city could get out of the contract,” Coment said.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Gabbard conceded that it was probably not the right time, neither politically nor fiscally, to forge ahead.

“It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me to move forward with it if there’s going to be action or legislation, especially with the investment that’s involved,” Gabbard said.

Gabbard said the council would be kept in the loop before any further action is taken.

“If we move toward implementating that, we will advise you. We will put it on the agenda and we will advise you,” he said.

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