Almanac

News - September 1, 2010

Menlo council reviews red-light camera issues

• Police department releases accident data showing collision rates only slightly lower.

by Sandy Brundage

The issue of red-light cameras causes controversy wherever it goes, even during City Council meetings.

On Aug. 24 Menlo Park's City Council approved a response to the San Mateo County grand jury report released in June that chided the city for, among other things, how far away warning signs were placed at the three intersections with cameras, and how much money the city earns from citations resulting from violations at those intersections.

The Menlo Park police department didn't track accident rates specifically related to red lights at those intersections until The Almanac asked in July whether rates had decreased because of camera installation. The police compiled the results for accidents two years prior to the installations, and for post-installation in 2008 through July 10, 2010.

These statistics indicate only accidents caused by either red-light running or turning right on red without stopping first, both of which the cameras are meant to minimize:

• El Camino Real/Glenwood Ave: 0 accidents before, 0 after

• El Camino Real/Menlo Ave/Ravenswood Ave: 1 accident before, 0 after

• Bayfront Expressway/Willow Rd: 6 accidents before, 5 after

Police spokesperson Nicole Acker said the department would continue tracking the data.

The grand jury report indicated the city collected, on average, $94,500 per month. This doesn't include the costs to the city of running the program; The Almanac has been trying to obtain a breakdown of those costs from the city. City Manager Glen Rojas said staff will research the personnel expenses.

During a presentation to the City Council, Sgt. Sharon Kaufman reported that collisions along the entire stretch of El Camino Real from 2008 to last month had decreased from 133 to 109, but Councilman John Boyle suggested that there "could be a hundred reasons" for the decrease, such as the depressed economy leading to fewer cars sharing the road.

Although a man who received a red-light camera ticket in Menlo Park has now filed a class action lawsuit against the cameras, City Attorney Bill McClure said the city has not yet been served papers as a party to the suit.

Menlo Park's contract with Redflex, the Arizona-based company responsible for operating and maintaining the cameras, differs from those of other Peninsula cities such as San Carlos and San Mateo. At issue is the so-called cost neutrality clause, which lets cities off the hook for paying for the services if revenue doesn't cover the cost.

The Menlo Park contract, Mr. McClure told the council, doesn't have a cost neutrality clause, and only postpones payment to Redflex in the event that fees from monthly citations don't match the $5,000 to $6,000 per camera cost of operation.

San Carlos and San Mateo recently deleted that clause from their contracts after citations were dismissed by appellate judges in San Mateo County and Orange County on grounds that this created a financial incentive to issue citations.

Regarding the grand jury's complaint about the distance of warning signs from intersections, the city maintains the distance is appropriate, and it will not be making a change.

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