By Scott North
As I wrote last week, city officials have been responsive and helpful in answering our questions. They also are getting a bit prickly.
Late last week, Lynnwood Deputy Police Chief Karen Manser called and emailed the newsroom. She was agitated over Rikki King’s post on Need to Know reporting that the city raked in $4.7 million from traffic camera tickets since January 2010. I supervise King. I’ve been directing our inquiries into how traffic enforcement cameras are being brought to Snohomish County.
I spoke with Manser about her concerns. She said we had failed to provide the necessary context. It is important for people to understand that Lynnwood installed the traffic enforcement cameras in part because people complained in surveys (see attached) about the city’s execrable traffic congestion. In particular, she said, people rolling through red lights were making the traffic problems worse.Police patrols to crack down on red-light runners were costly and ineffective, she said, in part because congestion prevented the cops from catching up with the violators.
“So, we weren’t just sitting around one day and decided to implement the cameras for revenue. We were responding to problems and complaints,” Manser wrote in an email. “As I said earlier, the amount of revenue flows from the size of the problem.”
On Monday morning we received separate messages from Shannon Sessions, the police department’s spokeswoman. She alerted us that a letter-to-the-editor was on its way and made clear it would take issue with our recent coverage. The letter went to our Opinion section. Since that is a separate department at The Herald, we have no involvement in deciding whether it gets published. We’ll be sure to post a link if it does.
But there is no reason to delay sharing the concerns Sessions emailed to us and several Lynnwood officials, explaining the city’s heartburn with our work:
“Our concern is that there was a lot of time spent from our side giving much background, facts and other information on the photo enforcement systems to the reporter and many of those aspects weren’t included and any benefits of the program were completely left out.
“This article failed to be a well-rounded piece and seemed to be more flippant than with facts and taking into consideration the seriousness of these ongoing violations.
“These topics, as we both know, have been historically controversial and have been brought up many times by a variety of media since we started the first red light cameras in 2006, and many times again after we started the school zone enforcement. This is why it is even more irresponsible not to be sure both sides are included in articles such as this.
“Every time we discuss the photo enforcement systems with media (and since 2006 — this has been conservatively — about 25 times) we give them the opportunity to come to the station and see for themselves the process in which we go through with these photo enforcement systems and view the actual videos of all the violations. But, since 2006 when we started this, only one reporter (from The Enterprise) has ever taken advantage of that opportunity.
“Back to the basics: The original reason why Lynnwood even started looking into photo enforcement was due to daily calls to the department from citizens in Lynnwood and others driving through complaining about all of the people running red lights in this city.
“We don’t get those daily calls anymore.
“Let us know if you have any questions, Shannon”
Couple quick points. First, many of the stories written over the years about Lynnwood’s traffic enforcement camera program have been prepared by reporters working for The Herald. It’s true that I didn’t assign King to go watch the police department review traffic enforcement video. That wasn’t the focus of our inquiry. Moreover, the lone reporter Sessions says took the time to watch the police review video of traffic scofflaws actually works for The Herald’s sister publication. Her article was published in our pages in December 2009 and can still be read online here.
The city insists that its traffic enforcement cameras are all about safety, and that the millions of dollars in fines being paid to Lynnwood’s government are simply a byproduct.
Last week I came across city documents from late 2007 detailing what Lynnwood officials decided to do when it became clear that revenue from traffic cameras was going to be substantial. They opted to use some of the new money to add three more police officers to the department. State law says traffic enforcement revenue must go into a city’s general fund and be used to support daily government operations, which include police and a host of other programs. Was any thought given to using the money to improve traffic flow at the problem intersections? Could the red-light problem in Lynnwood be addressed by means other than enforcement?
What does one make of the decision to spend the money on police?
“As to your last question — it’s not relevant. You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Sessions said in an email Monday.
“Tax payers aren’t paying for this, people who are violating the law are.
“If the city chooses to use that revenue from law breakers to fund public safety resources, that is OK.”
UPDATE: The city’s letter-to-the-editor about traffic camera coverage was published Tuesday as a guest commentary, Facts that are too often left out by media.