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Zine Draws Peers' Flak for Red-Light Camera Remark

November 02, 2005|Steve Hymon and Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writers

A day after Councilman Dennis Zine revealed that Los Angeles' red-light cameras had been unplugged in June, several colleagues suggested Tuesday that he should have hit the verbal brakes.

Zine said he was just telling the truth.

"Look, I'm not the bad guy here," he said. "If anyone is the bad guy, it's the Police Commission and the [city] Department of Transportation" for turning off the cameras.

But Councilman Jack Weiss said discretion could save lives.

"If one person decides not to run a red light, and if one life is saved because of the deterrent effect of the cameras, that's a good thing," said Weiss, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a former police chief, also said Zine, a former police officer, should not have revealed the information.

"I don't think it was good" that he told, Parks said. "People see those cameras and slow down. It's a deterrent."

Zine's disclosure came during a debate Monday over awarding a contract to a new vendor for the cameras, which photograph red-light-running drivers and their vehicles' license plates.

Los Angeles began looking for a company to install red-light cameras for a test program in 1998.

Seven years later, the City Council is about to select a vendor for a long-term camera program.

Controller Laura Chick, a councilwoman in the late 1990s, sighed over how long it takes to approve any contract.

"I think what I'm prepared to say is that this is a horrific, murderous, screaming example of dysfunction in City Hall," she said.

Zine has said he was unhappy with Nestor Traffic Systems, the company approved Monday by the Public Safety Committee.

Red-light running has long vexed traffic officials. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, more than 900 people were killed and 176,000 injured in the United States because of red-light runners in 2003.

The first four cameras began operating in Los Angeles in late 2000.

The program was expanded to 16 of the city's approximately 4,300 intersections with traffic signals.

The LAPD has said the cameras reduced the number of accidents at those intersections by 18%. About 64,000 citations, at $271 each in 2002 but eventually hitting $351, were issued in the first four years.

But in April 2004, city officials decided to find a new vendor, because they had become unhappy with equipment breakdowns and fuzzy photos from the vendor at the time: Affiliated Computer Services.

Six companies bid on the new contract, and a search team from the LAPD and the city's transportation agency settled late last year on Nestor, of Rhode Island, the low bidder.

Nestor has been a controversial choice, and Zine was raising questions about it and ACS when he said the cameras had gone dark.

Zine has said he wants the best equipment for the city. He, like some other council members, has been lobbied on behalf of Nestor or its competitors.

According to a city analysis this summer, Nestor "appears to be paying operating expenses from debt issuance" and "if the city of Los Angeles becomes a client, we may be the only client or major client for revenue/sales for Nestor."

The company's contract with Fresno was terminated recently because of technical glitches. The city complained, according to a report, that only 19% of photos taken by the cameras were good enough to accurately identify violators.

After Los Angeles announced that it would switch camera firms, LAPD Capt. Kevin McCarthy said customer service from ACS had declined and he recommended that the cameras be turned off.

"It was [announced] at a public meeting," McCarthy said. " ... It was not secret by any means, but we're not going to say, 'Hey, have free rein at intersections.' "

Maury Hannigan, vice president and managing director for the ACS photo enforcement program, said the city declined the firm's offer to run the cameras on a month-to-month basis.

"The cameras are still out there. I could turn them on any day," Hannigan said. He also disagreed that the quality of the photos or customer service had deteriorated.

The company is in a dispute with the city over whether ACS or the city is responsible for taking down the ACS cameras.

On Monday, the Public Safety Committee voted 3 to 2, with Zine and Greig Smith the dissenters, to recommend Nestor. The contract goes next to the Transportation Committee and then to the full council for approval.

The contract has also revealed long-standing fault lines among some council members.

When Parks was chief of police, the LAPD accused Zine, then a high-ranking member of the Police Protective League, of sexual harassment. The department ultimately cleared him of the allegations. He voted against Parks' getting a second term as police chief.

And Weiss, in early October, asked Zine's girlfriend to leave the section of the council chambers reserved for elected officials and city staff, saying at the time that he thought she was lobbying for a developer.

The two other members of the Public Safety Committee -- Smith and Ed Reyes -- also said they disagreed with Zine's revelation about the cameras.

Reyes said it wasn't personal. As a first-grader in Lincoln Heights, he was hit by a car running a yellow light and suffered a collapsed lung and broken ribs.

"We don't have enough traffic cops for every intersection, and we don't have enough police to deal with violence," Reyes said.

"What's relevant is public safety, and the question is whether we were protecting people who thought the camera was on -- any police science class would tell you that presence is a deterrent."

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