Miami-Dade County

Miami, Davie put the brakes on red-light cameras — for now

Starting Monday, drivers in Miami and Davie who skate through certain red lights won’t be getting tickets — at least for the time being.

The two cities are temporarily suspending their red-light camera programs as the result of a new state law requiring municipalities to hold their own hearings for appeals of red-light camera citations.

Neither Miami nor Davie has been able to set up a special hearing board, though the new measure takes effect Monday, along with a host of other new state laws.

Doral is in a similar position and will likely follow suit, City Manager Joe Carollo said Thursday. “It appears that based on what the Legislature passed … we would end up having to suspend the red-light cameras beginning July 1, until the council decides which way it wants to go when it begins [meeting] again in August,” he said.

Still, some other municipalities, including Hollywood and North Miami, say they are on track to establish special appeals systems by the deadline.

“We already have a special magistrate process for our code enforcement process, so we’re looking at expanding that program to cover red-light citations,” Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey said.

In Miami, no citations will be issued for at least two weeks, when the City Commission will meet next and take a final vote on whether to have special magistrates hear the city’s red-light camera cases.

That ordinance won tentative approval 3 to 2 Thursday, but not before commissioners blasted the administration for waiting until the last minute to bring the proposal to a vote. Commissioner Frank Carollo said the measure should have been discussed in May, when the Florida Legislature approved the bill requiring municipalities to hold the hearings.

Prior to the legislative change, Miami-Dade motorists had to fight red-light tickets in county court.

Carollo and Commissioner Francis Suarez have other concerns about the Miami ordinance. They criticized city administrators for failing to provide a detailed plan on how they would handle the more-than 1,200 tickets Miami doles out monthly.

“Do we have the resources to actually handle that caseload?” Carollo asked. “Do we have the expertise to handle these citations? Do we need to set up a new board?”

City Planning Director Francisco Garcia offered his assurances that the city was up to the task.

“We are prepared to receive as many tickets as come and dispense with them appropriately,” he said.

Miami isn’t the only city wrestling with the legislative change.

Davie will stop issuing red-light camera tickets briefly starting July 1, but start again after the town council returns from summer recess and has time to discuss the new legislation, police spokesman Dale Engle said.

In Doral, council members decided to defer until August a motion to establish a hearing board.

Mayor Luigi Boria went so far as to propose this week eliminating the city’s 11 red-light cameras altogether. But that, too, won’t be up for a vote until August.

Other cities have managed to set up a special hearing system for red-light camera cases, or plan to adapt the process used for code enforcement hearings for their red-light camera hearings.

North Miami City Manager Stephen Johnson insists his city will be ready.

“We’re preparing to be in compliance with the new state law,” he said.

North Miami formerly used a special magistrate to decide red-light camera cases before a 2010 law let drivers fight their tickets in an actual courtroom. The city will return to that system, Johnson said.

The new hearing system won’t be in place Monday, he added. But drivers ticketed in early July won’t get their notices of violation until early August anyway.

The final vote in Miami will take place at the next city commission meeting on July 11.

It could become contentious. On Thursday, commissioners briefly debated whether to altogether abandon the program, which has been a source of controversy since the cameras were first approved in 2008.

Miami has 153 red-light cameras at 98 intersections. The tickets generate $3.4 million in annual revenue, budget director Daniel Alfonso said.

Suarez, who is looking to unseat Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado in November, called for an end to the program.

“The residents of the city of Miami are vehemently against the system,” Suarez said. “They view it as an involuntary tax.”

Regalado was quick to say that Suarez’s comments were motivated by politics.

“The facts are here,” Regalado said, noting that Suarez voted to approve the city’s contract with the camera company American Traffic Solutions. “You can’t deny your history.”

Despite the criticism, Suarez said he planned to renew his call to dismantle the program at the next meeting. Carollo said he wants to get rid of the cameras, too.

Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Vice Chairman Willy Gort voted in favor of the ordinance to use special magistrates for the ticket appeals.

The likely swing vote: Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

Spence-Jones approved the ordinance on first reading Thursday, but said she would need more convincing to vote in favor of it permanently.

“I just think there are a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “I just don’t want to support something that I’m not all that comfortable with.”

In other business, the Miami Commission delayed a vote on whether to revise its sign code. The changes are controversial because they would make small electronic signs legal.

The city Planning, Zoning and Appeals board approved the measure by a 6-3 vote in April. But anti-billboard groups like Scenic Miami have fought against the changes, saying the new signs would clutter the natural landscape.

“The city of Miami would look immeasurably better if [it] would simply enforce its existing code against existing illegal and non-conforming signs,” activist Peter Ehrlich said. “Why add new confusing rules when the existing rules are not being enforced?”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.