Miami-Dade County

Miami Commission delays vote on red-light tickets

Miami’s traffic-camera program, which tickets drivers caught running certain red lights, will remain suspended for another two weeks after city commissioners delayed a vote Thursday on whether to create a special board to hear ticket appeals.

A narrow majority of the divided five-member commission appeared ready to set up the new board following more than four hours of public comments and discussion on the dais.

But the swing voter, Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, asked City Manager Johnny Martinez to spend more time trying to persuade her two colleagues likely to vote no.

“I really want to see if we can work this out,” she said, indicating she would vote in favor. She called for consensus while acknowledging that Commissioners Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez “may never feel comfortable” with the measure.

Florida lawmakers required city-run appeals boards in a law effective July 1. Before the change, drivers had to fight the tickets in county court.

Several South Florida cities, including Davie, North Bay Village and El Portal, have also stopped issuing tickets until the boards run by special magistrates are set up. Doral is considering suspending its red-light camera program altogether. Other municipalities, including Hollywood, Coral Gables and North Miami, have already created the hearing boards.

In Miami, the cameras have become a political issue in the mayoral campaign between incumbent Tomás Regalado, who supports the program, and Suarez, his leading challenger.

At one point, Chairman Marc Sarnoff, who backs creating the new appeals board, suggested some of his colleagues were overly concerned with politics and looking for excuses to vote against the cameras.

And even though he has supported Suarez’s campaign, Sarnoff added this jab: “It’s embarrassing to get a ticket as a commissioner.”

Vehicles registered to Suarez have received two red-light tickets since 2010, according to records from American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona vendor that runs the cameras in most Florida cities that use them. One ticket was dismissed and the other ultimately not pursued by the issuing city, Coral Gables. Suarez has said he didn’t recall either.

“Please don’t ever question my motives,” Suarez shot back at Sarnoff.

Spence-Jones also came to his defense: “I could care less who got tickets.”

Regalado did not weigh in on the debate. But at the end of the meeting, he predicted the commission would remain split on July 25, when the item will be readdressed.

“They’re not changing their minds,” he said. “I’m just sorry for the people that spent the day here hoping to get a resolution.”

A standing-room only crowd of mostly proponents packed City Hall on Thursday morning. Supporters wore white doctor coats and matching T-shirts from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which receives $3 out of every $158 ticket fine. Another $10 goes to Florida trauma centers.

There were also some opponents, though they were outnumbered.

“Enough already — no more cameras,” read a handmade sign written in Spanish by retiree Carlos Muñoz Fontanills, who told El Nuevo Herald he could not afford medication this month because he had to pay $316 for two tickets in June.

Miami, whose commissioners approved the program in 2008, makes $3.4 million a year from the tickets issued by 153 cameras at 98 intersections. The city doles out more than 1,200 citations a month. The new appeals process would impose an additional $85 fee on drivers who unsuccessfully contest their tickets.

Assistant Police Chief Jorge Gomez tried to make the case Thursday that the cameras are not about generating revenue but about preventing deadly traffic accidents and solving crimes.

“There’s a huge benefit to having these cameras on,” he said.

Accidents at intersections with cameras have gone down nearly 11 percent, he said. Police have also used the cameras in shooting, robbery and internal affairs investigations.

In the chambers, police played more than a dozen videos taken by the cameras. The audience gasped at some of them, including one showing a car running a red light and almost hitting a bicyclist.

Also speaking in support were a number of prominent donors and researchers from The Miami Project and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Sarnoff and Vice Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort backed the appeals board. Spence-Jones seemed to come around later, after reviewing additional information on how the hearings would be run and how much they would cost the city.

The debate turned on that information, provided by Martinez’s administration at the urging of commissioners who said they still had questions unanswered over the past two weeks.

Three hours into the discussion, the commission took a lunch break to allow staff to compile the numbers in writing. Commissioners then voted on other items to give each other time to review the new documents.

But that was not enough.

“I haven’t even had a chance to finish reading this,” Carollo said.