District 2 Commissioner/Vice Mayor Will Sellers pointed out that it would cost “approximately a quarter million dollars to pull out of the contract now” and wondered how the City would pay for it. He added that five Wilson County school buses either ran, turned on red lights without slowing down, or “broke the law with school children on the buses.”
Elam said commissioners had been “told previously at the table that to extricate themselves from the contract” would only be the cost to remove the cameras.
Mt. Juliet City Attorney Jason Holleman said ATS, the company in charge of installing and running the red light camera program, gave him two scenarios if the City were to remove the cameras, one being a charge of $790,000 as a breach of contract fine. The contract, which was originally supposed to be for five years but was settled on for three, has been in place for some nine months.
Elam said again that commissioners were told they would have to pay for the removal of the cameras.
“That’s not what the contract says,” Holleman told her.
“That’s what we were told,” Elam said.
“I can only speak to what the contract says,” Holleman said. He added that the other scenario is that ATS will allow the contract to be amended if payment from the City goes from a percentage fee to a flat fee of $33,000 per month.
Holleman said that at this time Mt. Juliet sends approximately $48,000 per month to the vendor, and 40 percent of that amount comes from right turn on red violations.
“If (right turn on red) compliance goes up and tickets go down,” Holleman pointed out, “we would still pay a flat rate of $33,000 per month.”
District 3 Commissioner Ed Hagerty said that every violation is now reviewed by Mt. Juliet Police officers, and he understands that “they throw out about half” of them. He said police could “easily” throw out the right on red tickets, and why would they agree to a flat rate when “we have control over who gets a violation anyway?”
Holleman said if the city commission changes the parameters for right turns on red ATS “could take that as a breach of contract because that’s not in the parameters originally agreed upon.”
Hagerty said commissioners were not told about the cancellation clause “or that it is a right turn on red program. It was never brought up.”
“The violation is the same if you go straight through or turn right,” Holleman said. “It’s if you violate the stop requirement at the red light. It’s failure to stop at a red light.”
Elam said that the cameras “can access and record excess and speed.” She said again that the commission was “sold on T-bone accidents,” not right turns on red, and “shame on (City) staff” for not telling the board that.
MJPD Deputy Chief James Hambrick said that out of 30,000 “events” (violations caught by the red light cameras) only 13,470 citations were issued by police. That’s less than 50 percent, which he said is “very lenient.”
Hambrick said by issuing right turn on red citations police are “trying to modify safe driving behavior.”
“I’m about the law,” Hambrick told the commission. “The law says that I, as a driver, have to come to a complete stop at a red light.”
Elam said she’s received “too many complaints” and that it is “human nature to ease around the turn” at a red light.
“I’m talking about the law,” Hambrick told her.
“I’m talking about the parameters from which the police department operates,” Elam returned. She said police officers should use “discretion” when issuing right turn on red tickets.
District 1 Commissioner Ted Floyd, a retired MJPD chief, asked Hambrick: “When you send officers out to a red light without a camera with lots of complaints, when he’s at that intersection with his camera and someone makes a right turn on red going 9 or 10 miles an hour do you think the officer will us discretion and not give (the driver) a ticket?”
Hambrick said no, that the officer would treat the red light just like stop signs in neighborhoods.
“I really resent this,” Floyd said. “I would not sit here and criticize (the police department) and say you’re overwriting tickets. Four out of five tickets written (for red light cameras) are in my district. As far as receiving complaints to take them out, I’ve received less than five to take them out. I won’t roll the dice to take them out and put citizens or taxpayers to a burden because I don’t think the company (ATS) will say, ‘Well, you didn’t understand the contract.’”
Floyd stated at the beginning of the meeting that he couldn’t support the resolution to alter or eliminate the camera system because he did not “feel I’ve got the power to encourage the new enforcement of right hand turns on red because to eliminate that particular violation” would be a safety violation, and he felt he’d be “encouraging people to violate Tennessee law (Tennessee Code Annotated 55-8-110).
Hagerty said that from what he understands the “number one” complaint site for red light camera violations is from people turning east onto Lebanon Road from Mt. Juliet Road, where there is no “protected green arrow.” He asked Hambrick if such an arrow could be installed there, and Hambrick pointed out that that decision is up to State officials. Mt. Juliet and Lebanon Roads are state highways.
District 4 Commissioner Jim Bradshaw said that $260,000 is projected for income from the cameras in the next budget, and if it costs $790,000 to get out of the contract, “that’s one million, fifty thousand dollars, and there’s no way I’m going to vote for the City to go bankrupt because of this.”
Elam said she’s “willing to lay the burden of calculations on the staff.” “Scare tactic doesn’t do a thing for me,” the mayor said. She added, via email on Tuesday, that she did not read the contract between ATS and the City and “was going from what we were previously told at the table by the city manager and the Chief.”
Sellers said that the “last time we had this discussion” Mt. Juliet City Manager Randy Robertson told the commission it would be $200,000 to get out of the contract.
In the end, commissioners voted 2-1-1 not to approve the resolution, with Floyd and Sellers opposed, Hagerty and Bradshaw abstaining, and Elam voting in favor.
Editor’s Note: Tomi L. Wiley is the editor of The Chronicle of Mt. Juliet. She may be contacted at Editor@thechronicleofmtjuliet.com