Wednesday, June 08, 2011

June 8, 2011 Morristown Extends Red Light Camera Contract

The red light camera contract with RedFlex was extended yesterday in a 5-2 vote. Councilmembers Brooks and Bivens voted NO.  Bob Garrett, Claude Jinks, Paul LeBel, Kay Senter, and Mayor Danny Thomas voted YES.

The contract was approved prior to the public comment portion of the meeting and without any prior notice in the paper of the upcoming vote. 

Councilmembers themselves only became aware of the proposed contract extension late last week when they received the agenda and information packets.

The contract apparently gives the City more of the money that is collected, moves the WalMart light to 25E at Cherokee Park, and allows the City to add more lights in the future. 

The City voted on the renewal yesterday with the stated purpose of avoiding the implementation of the new state law (July 1, 2011) which, among other things, requires traffic studies prior to putting up new lights. 

In a cash-strapped city that has been dubbed guilty of self-inflicted financial "malfeasance" by a federal judge, the vote was not surprising.

Monday, June 06, 2011

June 6, 2011 Administrator Tony Cox Surprises Council and Puts Red Light Camera Contract on Tomorrow's Agenda

The City of Morristown's current red light camera contract with RedFlex ends in August 2011.

Without holding a work session on the issue or giving the council at least 10 days notice, City Administrator Tony Cox has put changes and extension of the RedFlex contract on the Council's agenda for a vote tomorrow. 

[If the City is looking for more money, changes allowing installation of more lights and giving more of the red light revenue to Morristown and less to RedFlex will certainly do that]

The issue here is more of adequate time to review contracts and major contract changes. This is not an emergency situation. Will councilmembers rubberstamp this contract or decide that it's good business  practice and common sense to have at least 10 days to review and ask questions about a major contract revision and extension prior to voting on it---not to mention allowing the public to have some input?

Cox is apparently trying to get the RedFlex contract changed before red light legislation passed by the State Legislature takes effect on July 1, 2011.  Even if Tony is trying to "beat" the changes in state law, he could have put this item on work session tomorrow and then for a vote on June 21 instead of pushing for a vote tomorrow!

Tony gave the council only about four days notice (two of those days being Saturday and Sunday). If Tony gave notice to the press, I didn't see anything in Friday or Sunday's paper. As far as letting the public know about this agenda item, the city council's agenda (as of last night) was not posted on the city's website. Maybe it will be posted after this blog entry goes up. Maybe it's not in the same place as it used to be when it was on the front page of the website right above the "calendar of events." 

UPDATE: I have been told that the agenda is on the city's website, not where it used to be, and that you have to know where it is and how to get to it.  Not sure why the change was made, but I am sure that the change has made it harder for people who used to see the "agenda" link right on the front page as they now try to figure out where the agenda is.

Contrast this hurried/little or no discussion situation with the hours that Tony has spent in work sessions with council on signs, mattresses on the sides of the road, and a bust of Mama Bird Johnson to be erected at the new airport terminal.

Even those councilmembers who support the red light/speeding cameras should be willing to postpone this vote.

This is the time for the new Mayor and old and new councilmembers to step up and insist on having an absolute minimum of ten days in which to review a contract or extension of an existing contract--especially when it involves a contract that has raised considerable controversy in Morristown, across the state, and across the nation.

Click here to see my previous post on a recent Florida ruling on red light cameras and the different treatment of violators ticketed by cameras (small fine and no points on the driving license) and violators ticketed by the police (larger fine and points on the driving license).

Saturday, June 04, 2011

June 4, 2011 Red Light Cameras Unconstitutional?

Many questions have been raised about the constitutionality of red light cameras.

Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Judge Fred Berman has cited constitutional issues in his recent ruling that police can no longer issue red light tickets as long as cameras are operating.

Berman's ruling maintains that it is not fair that red light runners caught by police face a stiff fine and points on their license, compared to those nabbed by the cameras, who face a smaller fine and no points.

"This violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, as well as the Florida Constitution," the judge wrote.

Click here for the video news report.

According to a Fort Lauderdale attorney with the "Ticket Clinic," red light tickets issued by police will be challenged in Fort Lauderdale and perhaps beyond with citation to Judge Berman's opinion.

The Florida attorney general will become involved: "In our view, Judge Berman did not apply the appropriate standard of review. From here, we will be weighing all of our options to challenge his ruling, including an appeal to the Circuit Court."

Click here for the Florida story and links to previous reports by the Florida news channel.

Thanks to Michael Silence who reports on the story here with comments from Knoxville PD department spokesman Darrell DeBusk and to Taxing Tennessee which has the story and a link to Silence's post.

Friday, June 03, 2011

June 3, 2011 Councilman Chris Bivens Works on City Budget and Saves the City Taxpayers $120,000

In a previous post, I mentioned the LeBel-Senter discussion on May 31 about council's $15,000 travel budget for 2012. LeBel wanted to see that item eliminated. Senter wanted to keep it. 

[Kay Senter has been a prolific traveler in the past on the city taxpayer's dime and may want to dip into that line item beginning in July 2011 due to her upcoming coronation as president of TML (Tennessee Municipal League)]

After the LeBel-Senter traveltalk, newly-elected Councilman Chris Bivens showed that he has jumped into his new job with hands-on budget research. For 2012, City Administrator Tony Cox had included purchase of a new articulating loader for the City--a $140,000 piece of equipment.

Bivens saved the City taxpayers $120,000 by going and looking at the current loader and talking to one or more of the city's mechanics. Bivens found out that the current loader is in excellent shape and would be "just like new" with a new engine at $10,000 or so.

Council discussed the matter and decided that they could get the new engine and even throw in a new $10,000 transmission and for $20,000---instead of $140,000--the City would have an excellent piece of equipment!

Bivens thought most other new equipment purchases were OK although there was some small discussion of purchasing new computers for Parks and Rec and eliminating one piece of equipment.

After Bivens came up with the $120,000 in savings, no one criticized Bivens for  "micromanaging" the city's budget. Now if every councilmember would get in there--like councilmember Bivens did--and come up with similar savings.  Of course, you can't find savings if you don't look and ask questions, and most councilmembers have not even tried to find savings in this year's budget.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

June 1, 2011 City Councilmembers LeBel and Senter at Odds over Council "Travel" and "Slush Fund"

Yesterday, city council met in a brief special called meeting to address three items after which there was a short budget workshop.

In the special called meeting, the City Council voted to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer's decision in the Patricia Stephens, et al v. City of Morristown case to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The City will incur still more legal expenses in appealing the Judge's decision, but at least one goal is apparently to get the appeals court to eliminate or reduce the attorney fees that the City has to pay to the Plaintiff's attorney Gary Davis. See Judge Greer's decision on attorney fees here.

In action related to Judge Greer's order that the City rehab the Witt sewer line, the council voted to obtain two easements in South Hamblen County. One easement (Wallace Properties) will be obtained by agreement. The other (Kenneth McClanahan) will be taken by eminent domain if an agreement is not reached in the next few days.

In the budget workshop, there was heated discussion over two items in the city council's budget. Paul LeBel questioned the council's proposed travel budget of $15,000. [Update: The proposed travel budget for 2012 is $15,000 up from $8,000 in estimated travel expenses for 2011 and up from $2,909 that was actual travel spending in 2010]  LeBel said that, as a businessman, he travels on 'his own dime." He also pointed out that county commissioners do not have a travel budget.  [LeBel serves on the county commission AND city council.]

When he mentioned that Councilmember Kay Senter has spent $22,000 on travel in the last four years, the temperature in the room began to rise. Kay countered that she and Claude Jinks had discovered a pipe bursting technology on one of their travels and had brought news of this technology to the City's engineering department saving the City lots of money.

LeBel stated that if the engineering department didn't know about this important engineering technology on its own then the City needs new engineers.

Kay then got to the real reason that the travel budget is so high and why it is so important to her. She said that she is in line, as current vice-president, to become president of the Tennessee Municipal League Board in the coming year.

[LeBel may not have known about Kay's TML position, but in the last couple of years, she has mentioned her soon-to-be-coronation as president of the TML Board a number of times. She has also noted on a number of occasions that her city taxpayer-paid travel has helped her to meet with leaders of other cities and work her way into her current position of leadership in TML.  Becoming president of TML is extremely important and significant for Kay.]

LeBel said that's great, but he still encouraged council to travel on its own dime.  The conversation went back-and-forth for several minutes with Mayor Danny Thomas criticizing LeBel for bringing Senter's name into the mix.

Somehow, you have to wonder about the importance of the Tennessee Municipal League being headed by a councilmember from Morristown who sat by while Morristown's finances burned, money was illegally shifted, taxes were raised, garbage fees were started, sweetheart contracts were approved, and on and on.

But nevermind all that, Kay Senter can put down that she is the first or nearly first head of TML from the eastern area of the state! 

Maybe instead of lots of "travel" with TML and other groups, councilmembers should have been tending to the City of Morristown's finances instead of rubber-stamping whatever was proposed.

LeBel also caused consternation when he mentioned the city council's $100,000 "slush fund."  "Slush fund" is LeBel's wording and just happens to echo my characterization of this line item which was added to the City's budget by Tony Cox last year.

Kay immediately defended the $100,000 "grants and subsidies" line item but admitted that maybe it should be called "contingency" instead. She said it helps council make "tough" decisions in the budget year when new items come up. 

What is really does is make what should be tough decisions on extra spending easier for council. Instead of having to make a decision to go back and pull from its fund balance to authorize additional mid-year spending, City Administrator Tony Cox comes to council and says that buying this or that is no problem because you can take it from your "grants and subsidies" line item.  Every time Tony came to council last year and said that the extra spending was "no problem," council went along. No tough decisions there.

LeBel might have succeeded on one item. There will be an examination of the Mayor's Diversity Task Force line item. The Diversity Task Force was created under former Mayor Sami Barile.

More later on how Councilman Chris Bivens saved the City $120,000 just by checking out Administrator Cox's proposed equipment purchases.