Tampa’s struggle over red light cameras

 

By all accounts, the look on the police chief’s face was priceless.

There stood Jane Castor in her crisp police uniform and customary poker face at a Tampa City Council meeting. Council members had each just spoken of their support for those traffic cameras that catch red-light-running scofflaws.

And why not? The chief said during the city’s 2-year-old red-light camera program, both crashes and tickets were down at Tampa’s diciest intersections, indicating drivers were mending their pedal-to-the-metal ways. All good.

So, naturally, the City Council then voted 4-3 to kill the same red-light cameras they just said positive things about. Had there been a cartoon bubble over the normally unflappable police chief’s head, it would have said something like:

Wha…?

At the heart of last week’s vote to shutter the city’s successful red-light camera program were politics and a power struggle, a strong mayor versus a council determined to be heard. (And also not appreciative of being called showboats for it.) Which makes for interesting political theater, Tampa style, if not for the actual public safety issue at its core.

It started like this: Back when red-light cameras first won approval, three council members wanted the city’s cut of the $158 ticket — nearly $1.64 million last year — to go specifically for transportation improvements instead of into the general fund.

Seems reasonable. Even if general revenue is already paying for traffic fixes, even if this earmarking would be largely symbolic, it could go a long way toward countering the oft-heard criticism that these cameras are for making money, not for making us safer.

So when red-light cameras came up for approval again last week, those three council members were joined by a fourth in the call to spend at least some of that money specifically on street safety, resulting in a 4-3 No vote.

Probably it did not help that afterward Mayor Bob Buckhorn — while vowing to work with the council to reach an agreement on this â was quoted in a Channel 10 interview implying council members up for election may have been showboating and grandstanding. And, ouch.

This is the brasher version of Buckhorn, who has mostly smoothed out the edges to become his city’s popular mayor.

It was Brash Buckhorn who three years ago said before another controversial butting-heads-with-council-members issue, “I only need four.” Meaning four of seven council votes to go his way.

“I looked at my colleagues and said, ‘I only need three,’ ” says councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin, a red-light no-vote.

Councilman Frank Reddick said he was disappointed in the mayor’s comments after the red-light vote. Capin fired back with, “If anyone knows about grandstanding, it’s him with his 6-foot yardstick” — a reference to Buckhorn’s infamous long-ago crusade to keep lap dancers that far from their customers.

So enough theater. This week the mayor said he would find a way to make it work with the City Council — though he was also quick to say the money already pays for traffic improvements.

“I want safe intersections,” he says, sounding mayoral. “However we have to get there, we'll get there.”

And on that, everyone can agree.

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