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St. Petersburg will grant some red light runners a free pass

ST. PETERSBURG — Citing flaws in state law, Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday that the city will give some red-light runners a free pass until problems are fixed.

Rental car drivers and people who are using someone else's car will be able to get out of violations because of a problem with the law that doesn't give them a chance to pay the $158 fine before it jumps to $264.

The moratorium could start as soon as today.

The change, announced during a Thursday council workshop, comes at Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke's urging. He asked cities to stop issuing red-light camera violations until flaws with the camera program are fixed because the state law didn't treat violators equally.

Foster said he wants drivers to be treated fairly and is open to more changes.

"That's the only thing I can change today with an administrative order," Foster said. "The fixes have to come from Tallahassee."

Burke agreed, calling the city's action "a step in the right direction."

Foster said he and staffers dissected the 2010 law but determined that exempting those two classes of drivers was the only change the city could make.

Burke disagreed with that assertion: "There's not a law that says cities have to install red-light cameras."

Burke recently sent letters to mayors and city council or commission members in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport, Kenneth City, Oldsmar and South Pasadena detailing the law's problems.

One of his biggest complaints dealt with drivers of rental cars.

After cities send the $158 violations to rental agencies, the companies sign affidavits naming the driver. Cities then send the drivers violations. By then, the fine has risen to $264 because the violation wasn't paid within 30 days.

Those motorists never get a chance to pay the lower fine of $158. Same goes for people who drive other people's cars. Vehicle owners get the violations, return affidavits saying they weren't at the wheel and naming the drivers, who then receive violations where fines have risen to $264.

With the moratorium, those violations will be dismissed after rental companies and vehicle owners return affidavits.

Under the moratorium, when the city receives affidavits from rental companies and vehicle owners, the violations will be dismissed, Foster said.

Council members wondered how many drivers will cheat the system because of the moratorium.

About 1,200 violations have been sent to rental companies since the red-light program began in November 2011. Another 305 vehicle owners signed affidavits naming other drivers. Combined, those 1,500 tickets cost drivers about $396,000.

Foster pointed out that perjury laws apply to the affidavits. Still, he expects cheaters.

'They're going to get a pass until the Legislature fixes it," he said. "The jails are full of people who say they didn't do it."

Council member Charlie Gerdes replied: "I don't want to see out-of-town drivers get off the hook and local drivers get stuck paying."

Foster believes legislators will fix the law so cities can allow both categories of drivers to pay the lower fine.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Committee on Transportation, said he expects several senators to file bills by today to fix flaws in the 2010 law that authorized red-light cameras.

Other issues cited by Burke include the way drivers receive citations, the way fines increase and how tickets are issued to vehicle owners instead of motorists.

Burke said his staffers must deal with the outraged drivers, taking costly time. Hillsborough, Sarasota and Pasco counties report similar problems.

Burke also doesn't like how the violation notices say that clerks will tell drivers how to challenge the ticket. He compared that to clerks giving legal advice.

Joe Kubicki, director of St. Petersburg's transportation and parking management, plans to ask the Arizona vendor who provides the city's cameras to change language on the violations.

Burke suggested another fix Thursday.

Drivers who don't contest the violations must pay the fine within 30 days. The violations urge drivers to send payments at least eight days before the due date.

His staffers have received complaints about payments being rejected because they arrived after 30 days.

"They should extend the days to 45," he said. "There are delays in mail. People live week to week."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg will grant some red light runners a free pass 02/28/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 11:22am]
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