Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tampa City Council members blast Buckhorn administration for failing to represent at surveillance camera discussion

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 at 2:08 PM

Throughout the last year and a half, some members of the Tampa City Council have privately expressed at one time or another anger regarding a lack of respect from Mayor Bob Buckhorn. That anger went public today at City Hall.

The reason was that the mayor, Police Chief Jane Castor, City Attorney Jim Shimberg, and other high-ranking members of the administration weren't present to discuss what to do with the surveillance cameras purchased with a federal grant for last month's Republican convention.

At the end of the lengthy discussion, Councilman Harry Cohen erupted in frustration, saying that even if members from the administration weren't available at 11 a.m., there was no good reason why they didn't show up by 1 p.m. (City Attorney Shimberg contacted Councilwoman Lisa Montelione to say he was in Clearwater on city business, not aware he was needed for the discussion.)

"Our input is not wanted, our input is not welcome," Cohen said.

Earlier, Councilman Mike Suarez called the lack of a top-ranking officials at the meeting, "unconscionable."

Perhaps their frustration was also due to the fact that they have limited say about what happens to the cameras. Buckhorn stated that he wants the cameras to remain, though he suggested he would be amenable to moving some of them to different parts of the city.

The problem with that, however, is it took a detective from the Tampa Police Department to inform the Council that the mayor and department want to work on such a plan during the next month.

"Do you have a plan?" Council Chair Charlie Miranda asked the TPD representative at one point, visibly frustration.

The Council voted to have the police department and heads of other city departments address concerns about the cameras in two weeks.

The motion put forward by Montelione included a breakdown of the costs, such as: relocating the cameras on street poles; creating such poles; air cards where web access for the system isn't available; a maintenance contract; and a proposed committee to do a quarterly review of how the cameras are being used.

The Council voted on March 1 by a 6-1 vote (Mary Mulhern dissented) to spend the nearly $2 million on the security cameras for downtown, as requested by the TPD. The item was rushed onto that day's agenda by Police Chief Castor, and as Cohen mentioned today, there was intense discussion about their use (and potential abuse).

That's why Cohen, in particular, seemed aggrieved that there was no high-ranking official from the police department present. The Council voted in March to set a Sept. 20 date to discuss the cameras' future.

Mulhern said she didn't want to say, "I told you so," but essentially did just that, citing what she called a, "meta-study" that irrefutably concluded that the cameras don't prevent crime.

"We got a gift. What's wrong with re-gifting these?" she asked, although she was aware that the Council did not have the power to cancel the cameras, because Mayor Buckhorn is, "The Decider," as Councilwoman Yolie Capin referred to him.

City Councilman Frank Reddick represents some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the city. He said residents of his district want some of the surveillance cameras to be used in East Tampa and Sulphur Springs to catch people who illegally dump items on the street during the middle of the night.

Councilman Cohen said he thought that moving cameras to city-owned parking garages and/or lots could be a positive development.

Heidi Damon, a member of the public in attendance at the hearing, said she was physically attacked in an Ybor City parking garage back in 2009. She seconded the idea of using such cameras in garages.

Downtown resident Jon Gales created a mobile app to map out the cameras online in the weeks preceding the convention. He told the Council that he disagreed with Mayor Buckhorn's comments that the cameras were the equivalent of an ATM taking one's photo.

He says some of the cameras point toward his downtown residence.

"It's invasive and unacceptable that Chief Castor can watch my life," he said.

Ybor City resident Aisha Sanchez questioned the city's lack of transparency from beginning to end with the cameras. Citing the reduced crime rate that the mayor and police department boast about, she said there was no reason for the cameras before the convention, no reason for them during the convention (because of the relative lack of protesters), and no need for them now.

The issue will come back before the Council on Thursday, Oct. 4, at 10 a.m.

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