Put on the red lightWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Dave Clark, my editor in chief at the Daily Telegram in Adrian, Mich., used to tell people, “Tell the truth. It’s easier.”
It’s part of human nature to lie, but I marvel at the lengths some people go to in their efforts to avoid the truth.
And no, this is not another column about The Blade.
It is, however, another column about the Carty Finkbeiner administration.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to accuse the administration of deception.
A few months ago, I got busted by a Toledo redlight camera, went through the “appeals process,” lost, moaned and whined about losing in this space, paid the fine and mostly moved on. I fought the law and the law won.
But every week since that Feb. 1 column, three or four readers a week check in with their own stories of navigating the redlight camera system.
One reader sent in a novel question: How many city-owned or -operated vehicles are caught breaking traffic laws, and how many of those offenses result in fines?
That should not be difficult information to find. There are myriad stories online detailing how city officials, garbage trucks, police cars, maintenance vehicles and the like blow through red lights or speed and get caught by the mole on the pole.
Check out these quotes from the public officials who addressed the issue with the Houston Chronicle in 2007:
Martha Montalvo, a Houston police executive assistant chief who oversees the [redlight camera] program: “We’re just like regular citizens. We’re only human. We’re hoping for some behavior modifications from all angles, not only from citizens, but also from our city employees.”
Leticia Fehling, an Aldine Independent School District spokeswoman, in a written statement: “We have improved our training of drivers to help prevent accidents and to place more emphasis on adherence to traffic laws. The district has also added a policy to our bus drivers’ handbook, which results in the termination of a driver who runs a red light. Terminations are pending for two drivers under the new policy.”
Hear how clean and pure the truth sounds?
Now, experience the convoluted, clashing cacophony of deception:
I sent a public information request to the city on April 10, seeking, “A listing of all city-owned-and-operated vehicles caught in traffic violations by redlight cameras in the city of Toledo for the past 48 months, information on how many of these vehicles and their operators were ticketed and fined, and how many of those fines were paid.”
On April 14, the city responded with this smug sack of nonsense, authored by Robert G. Salcido, director of operations for Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., in far away Phoenix: “Be advised the information requested as part of this request is not in a pre-existing report and/or format; it will be necessary to have my programmer build a query for the different databases involved, implement and verify the data, build the report and have the report ready for export. We estimate the time needed to complete this request at 4 hours payable at $175 per hour for a total of $700 for this request, which would need to be paid by the requestor prior to initiating the request and engaging the personnel involved. In addition, once payment is received the request will be placed in a queue to allow critical and mandatory tasks which are mission critical to be completed on time. The CSR for the city will be able to assist with using the Customer Management Report functions of the system to identify and provide existing reports for some data that the jurisdiction will be able to provide without involving our programming staff; unfortunately, specific and non-standard requests such as this one will not be available via the Customer Management Reports.”
Let me translate Salcido’s jabberwocky: “Take your information request and stick it where the sun don’t shine, Mr. Freedom of Information.”
Not interested in paying these weasel bastards $700 for anything, I tried another approach. On April 15, I requested, “records of any payments made by the City of Toledo to the redlight camera company for traffic violations incurred by any and all city employees in any and all city vehicles, or any notices of responsibility for payment sent from the city to any and all vehicle operators. That is information from the city’s records.”
The response from the city, on April 28, two weeks later: “According to [Police Chief Mike] Navarre, what you are asking for does not exist.”
No record exists for how much money the city has paid to Redflex for traffic fines, or has the city not paid any money for its employees’ infractions because those photos are removed from the database?
I followed up that day by requesting any city guidelines for traffic citations, and was told, “According to Chief Navarre, there is no written policy pertaining to traffic citations and City of Toledo vehicles.”
So while other cities have mandatory training and fine structures in place, Toledo just wings it.
Now, compare that experience to this one: On April 29, I asked Stephen Atkinson, marketing director for the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA), how many TARTA buses have been busted. Within a few hours, I received this response: “There has been one TARTA bus ticketed by red-light camera within the past few months — nothing else the prior 18 months. There have been no TARPS vehicles ticketed since the paratransit service was brought in-house as of October 2008.”
Hear how clean and pure the truth sounds?
First of all, congratulations to TARTA for its stellar records in this instance. Second, thank you to TARTA for its immediate accessibility in this instance.
Why is the city and Redflex so eager to hide this information? One can only assume because it is embarrassing to the city, and undermines the revenue-enhancement system. If the City of Toledo’s employees had the clean record TARTA does, those records would have been in my hands the day I asked for them. But in the Finkbeiner administration, denial and delay are as common as suburban malcontents.
On April 29, I contacted Christopher Finney, a board member of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, which is working to ban the cameras, and discussed the situation. He said he made a similar request to Redflex, was told it would cost $700 to fill, threatened to sue them, and immediately received the information.
Huh. He threatened to sue. With all the local role models, I should have thought of that.
Within a few minutes, Finney e-mailed the entire Toledo redlight camera database to me; that database contains the name and address of every citizen who has ever been cited by a redlight camera in Toledo, but information on city-owned vehicles has been stripped out.
And if that information has been removed, it must have been sorted and placed somewhere, right? So Redflex and City are lying when they claim the information has never been extracted. Not that it surprises me that a company that makes its money by hiding behind a lens would be less than forthcoming.
Finney and I are collaborating on another request for the information, with legal action pending.
Government and its allies need to be accountable, and when there is collusion and deception, that needs to be revealed.
It’s a slow fight, but it is an important one and will be fought to the legal end. We’ll see what we find.
Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot.
Either way, it will be the truth.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.
Postscript: Toledo Free Press reader Sean Patrick Clark has written an essay about the redlight camera system, “An Important Lesson,” that makes my experience look like a Sunday nap. It is linked here.