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It Was Anything but a Snap Decision

L.A. council at last picks a supplier for red-light cameras. Lobbying by the top two bidders was intense, and the city seemed to be in no rush.

November 19, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

On paper, it seemed simple.

In May 2004, the city of Los Angeles asked companies to bid to provide new cameras to take photos of drivers running red lights.

The city had 16 cameras at the time, credited with issuing more than 60,000 citations and deterring L.A's aggressive red-light runners.

But it was not until Friday, 18 months later, that the city settled on a new supplier, ending a contentious contracting process that featured high-priced City Hall lobbyists and sharp words between council members. Meanwhile, the red-light cameras have been unplugged since summer.

This is Los Angeles' second try at installing technology that is already in place in more than 100 other U.S. cities. By June, two years after the city started the search for a new vendor, nine of 4,300-plus intersections will have cameras.

Friday's vote was 11 to 0, but the unanimity disguised what elected officials, lobbyists and businesses have long complained about: contracts clattering slowly along the languid bureaucratic conveyor belt.

"I am utterly shocked how much politics there were," said Kevin McCarthy, the Los Angeles Police Department official who helped choose the new company. "I didn't know how powerful lobbyists were and how much their access plays a role in the whole thing."

At up to $15.6 million for five years, the new red-light contract is relatively small by Los Angeles standards. But it's one of the largest in the emerging red-light camera industry and a launch pad for future clients.

Through the summer and fall of 2004, a panel of police and city transportation officials vetted six bids. By year's end, they had a winner: Nestor Inc. of Providence, R.I.

But the battle was far from over.

Nestor and the second-place finisher -- Redflex of Sydney, Australia -- both hired big-name lobbyists who had long been familiar with the city's power corridors.

In Nestor's corner was Arnie Berghoff, who worked on a monthly retainer that has paid him $54,000 since last year. Redflex hired Ken Spiker Jr., who worked on contingency and stood to receive $100,000 if Redflex won.

The adversaries are friends and share a suite of offices. Berghoff worked for Spiker's father when the father was the chief legislative analyst for the city in the 1970s and '80s.

By a narrow margin -- because of cost and what officials said was superior equipment -- Nestor scored highest in the city's bidding scoring system, making it the likely recipient. In January, the Police Commission authorized the drafting of a contract.

Spiker tried to enlist Councilmen Dennis Zine and Greig Smith into backing Redflex's bid. Both are reserve LAPD officers and interested in the issue. Earlier this year they asked the Police Commission to allow Nestor and Redflex to participate in a pilot program.

Smith said he believes that the city's contracting process is flawed and bid requests poorly written.

Zine said he was motivated by his long experience as a traffic cop. "I've seen the dead bodies, I've taken the bodies out of the car, I've knocked on the doors to tell people that family members are dead," he said. "This has nothing to do with lobbying."

The Police Commission never responded to their request.

But city officials didn't appear to be in any rush. It took until early August, more than seven months, for the contract to be written -- and rewritten -- by the city attorney and then approved by the commission.

In the meantime, the 16 cameras that were snapping photos of red-light runners had been quietly turned off after the relationship between the city and its old vendor soured. The police credited those cameras with reducing accidents at the intersections. Red-light runners kill about 1,000 people a year in the U.S. and injure 89,000, according to federal statistics.

It took 2 1/2 months longer for the contract to be vetted by the chief administrative office before landing in the council's Public Safety Committee on Halloween. It passed on a 3-2 vote. Smith and Zine dissented.

At the session, Zine spilled the news that the cameras had been turned off, sparking angry comments from committee Chairman Jack Weiss, who believed that the inactive cameras still worked as a deterrent to potential lawbreakers.

Nine days later, the council's Transportation Committee approved the contract 2 to 1. Smith again dissented.

During this time, Spiker and Redflex never gave up.

In early November, Spiker took members of Zine's and Smith's staff to Cerritos, which contracts with Nestor, to try to demonstrate that the company's equipment is inferior.

Redflex officials told reporters that Nestor had lost about $29 million in the last three years. Spiker and Redflex officials mused aloud about whether the firm could survive.

Spiker also complained that Redflex never received a fair hearing before city officials. He maintained that the company's equipment is superior and will result in more tickets -- and more revenue -- for the city.

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