Lynnwood is the only city in Snohomish County using traffic-enforcement cameras. (Dan Bates / Herald file)

Lynnwood is the only city in Snohomish County using traffic-enforcement cameras. (Dan Bates / Herald file)

Traffic-enforcement camera debate resumes in Lynnwood

LYNNWOOD — It’s time to talk about the future of traffic-enforcement cameras in Lynnwood, and some elected officials already have made up their minds.

At a recent public meeting, councilwoman Shannon Sessions, a longtime advocate for the devices, made clear her stance hasn’t changed.

People who live in Lynnwood and see the cameras posted have “learned pretty quickly and their behavior changed,” she said. “The whole point of this is to change behavior.”

She’s adamant the cameras improve safety.

That’s always been a murky question in Lynnwood.

Thursday was the first time in four years that city officials held a public meeting to talk about traffic-enforcement cameras. The current contract is up in November. The City Council has to decide whether to renew the contract, change vendors or pull the plug.

Lynnwood is the only city in Snohomish County that continues to use the devices. In 2015, its enforcement cameras brought in $2.76 million in ticket revenue. The cameras were used to issue 33,478 tickets, the highest figure in five years.

The city netted $1.86 million of last year’s revenue. The vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, collected $648,000. Another $254,200 was used to pay for police and court staff time and to purchase postage or pay for interpreters.

This year is on track to match or surpass 2015 in citations and revenue.

The numbers were shared at a meeting of the finance committee, a subset of the council.

The meeting was meant “to set the stage” for future discussion, city spokeswoman Julie Moore said. Vendor data shows that 82 percent of the people ticketed don’t live at Lynnwood addresses, she said.

That’s a statistic the city has touted before. The newspaper in 2014 requested the data used to reach that conclusion. The city never provided the numbers. The police department last week was unable to present the data.

When it comes to traffic-enforcement cameras and the city of Lynnwood, the numbers always have been squishy, except when it comes to the cash.

Though the cameras are advertised as a safety program, the city never has provided collision data that demonstrates a safety impact. That’s in spite of the cameras having been running for nearly a decade now.

The last publicly shared study of collision data was conducted by the police department in 2011. The city acknowledged it was inconclusive.

Councilmember Ian Cotton asked Thursday if the council will be provided any data before making a decision on a contract this fall. An engineer by trade, he thought 20 years of crashes might be a good start.

“Having that data readily accessible and prepared would be excellent,” he said.

The answer he got was maybe.

The state has changed how it tracks collisions, and the available numbers are likely “apples to oranges,” public works director Bill Franz said.

Any data analysis also must consider the increase of traffic in town over the years, Council President M. Christopher Boyer said.

“If we can see a safety factor … then I think we have got something to say about safety,” he said.

Interim Police Chief Bryan Stanifer noted that the program was created in 2007 in response to complaints about driver behavior and pedestrian safety.

Back then, it was normal to see “two or three or four people sneak through at the end of a (yellow) light,” Franz said. He believes the cameras have a “halo effect,” making drivers more careful throughout the city.

“The system has been working beautifully to enhance safety in Lynnwood,” he said. “That’s my professional opinion.”

Lynnwood now is engaged with vendors in “a competitive review process,” said Karen Fitzthum, the city’s contract manager.

“We have already begun to research various contracts,” she said, “… should we decide to continue with ATS or one of its competitors.”

ATS, the current camera company, made headlines in 2011, when The Daily Herald unmasked an ATS executive who was trolling Seattle-area media websites. He used multiple aliases to pretend to be a local who supported enforcement cameras. The city’s relationship with the vendor also got less cuddly after the newspaper reported that police officers were working with ATS to coordinate marketing schemes and even explore job prospects at the company. The same company in 2010 tried to get the Mukilteo mayor to find it a local plaintiff to fight a Tim Eyman initiative against the cameras, because ATS said that would “look better.”

Years have passed, and yet questions about the cameras still make some Lynnwood leaders prickly. Former councilman Sid Roberts wrote an opinion piece in the newspaper in April, saying that such questions about the cameras must spring from a “misunderstanding” about the relevance of safety and revenue.

Sessions, who was the police department spokeswoman when the camera program was launched, took several opportunities on Thursday to remind her colleagues that she’s been answering questions about the cameras for years.

The police department and the municipal court share a building. She personally used to direct people who came in to contest their camera ticket to a kiosk where they could review the video and in many cases, she said, sheepishly decide to pay up.

In 2011, she co-wrote an opinion piece in which she argued that it took “courage to support this system,” which she said was saving lives.

She said the city has been responsive to concerns. On Thursday, she brought up a change made years ago on how Lynnwood used school-zone speed cameras.

The police department restricted camera enforcement hours in school zones to times when children were present. That decision came after Lynnwood’s camera revenue spiked in 2010. That year the city collected a record $4.1 million in camera fines.

It was legal for those speed cameras to be in action throughout the school day, and the change was “an example of listening to the public,” Sessions said.

The councilwoman also said she remembered several crashes happening that were related to red-light running in Lynnwood.

“Historically, we had pedestrian injuries and fatalities,” she said, but admitted she was fuzzy on the numbers.

Statewide, traffic-safety experts consider drugs, alcohol, speeding and young drivers to be the biggest dangers on the road. Red-light running is not listed among the top 13 priorities of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Improving safety for pedestrians and around school zones are, however, two priorities on the list.

Eventually, the council’s finance committee will revisit the topic with a recommendation from the mayor, Moore said. There is no timeline for when the full council will vote, other than the November deadline.

More research is needed to see “if there is suitable crash data available,” she said.

“We will present all of our facts and findings to the mayor and City Council so that they can make an informed decision about the future of the program,” she said.

At the same time, Franz told the others, “We’re not getting a real clear picture, unfortunately. Some of our safety concerns are maybe less scientific and more …”

Stanifer, the police chief, finished his sentence:

“Anecdotal.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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