Roy Exum: What’s This Guy Thinking?

Friday, February 21, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is no greater fan or believer in Sheriff Jim Hammond than I am, but I fear Hamilton County’s top cop may need to be placed on a political-suicide watch. Here is a man running for re-election, which he should easily win by an overwhelming support of the grateful voters, yet on Wednesday he had what can only be perceived as an impromptu “brain spasm” when he got an addled County Commission to go along with a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack of traffic cameras, of all things. I can’t think of a greater case of self-sabotage.

It’s true, with literally no warning, the Sheriff breezed in and actually got preliminary approval – gasp! --for two of the most-hated and universally disliked devices known to mankind. Traffic cameras are recognized throughout the United States as nothing more than vile devices used for lurid “money grabs.” My goodness, we all know the city of Red Bank has still not recovered from the stench of the horrid contraptions – many motorists still avoid the besieged community like it has the plague.

By yesterday morning two of the five commissioners who voted in favor of the cameras expressed hurried remorse, publicly saying they’ll quickly join those who already knew better, and, while the other three who approved the idea should hurriedly apologize or seek severe storm cover, any fool can look at a poll and see that nearly 90 percent are against such an outlandish abomination.

Obviously the Sheriff will soon be told ‘no’ in a dramatic fashion, and that the next time a traffic camera salesman comes to town he should promptly be put in jail. But it remains downright worrisome that any public official who has the citizens’ best interests at heart would dare consider such a volatile issue, particularly in an election year.

Sheriff Hammond does a masterful job wrestling with an unpredictable budget and, while he is immensely popular for initiating the Sheriff’s Foundation and aiding our satellite towns and communities, the last thing he needs to do is make people mad like the city of Chattanooga’s traffic cameras have accomplished with every single letter that is mailed to an unknowing victim.

My goodness, the Ohio State Legislature is currently considering a statewide ban of the devices and, in Florida, a scathing report just out from the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability has the state taking a hard look at what the cameras “really” do. State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) told the media at a press conference this week that his constituents have had enough of it.

"It is deeply disturbing to think that cities and counties in our state may be choosing camera revenue before implementing proven safety countermeasures," Senator Brandes said at a Monday press conference.  "While these cameras are not decreasing accidents, the report highlights that we are seeing an increase of over 200 percent in revenue since fiscal year 2010-2011 and that 15 communities are bringing in well north of a million dollars each from the revenue.

"Seventy-six percent of local governments use the revenue to boost their general budgets and only 14 percent use that money for public safety," Brandes added. "This shows the perverse incentives inherent in the red light camera program."

Are you surprised? Traffic camera giant Redflex – which was reportedly kicked out of Chicago and forfeited a $100 million contract due to corruption -- has now been flagrantly accused by a former lead salesman of bribery in 14 different states, including municipalities in Tennessee and Georgia. By the time a vigorous federal investigation is over, you can bet the universal scorn for red light cameras will be far worse. Oh the cameras still do one thing well - fleece the unknowing public.

What politicians must realize that anytime an unmarked white van is parked along Lee Highway or East Brainerd Road most Chattanooga motorists recognize it be no more than a unmarked trap. Deterrent? Please. It is a way the city of Chattanooga preys on its citizens, period. Any man or woman up for election who platforms to remove the hated pariahs will almost be assured of being elected on this one issue alone. It is entrapment, plain and simple.

The same is true for the Vehicle Emission Centers. The public overwhelmingly detests the yearly inspection, which is considered in itself to be a joke, and the fact the operators are rude, abrasive and unfriendly weakens any argument. Everybody knows it is just a way to add $10 to the cost of a license tag, but the legislature turns a blind eye. Why is that?

After all, just five of the state’s 95 counties foist the shameful fee on residents and, with tags obviously cheaper in surrounding counties, the thinking by some is that the sham may actually violate state law. It’s clearly not fair for one county to enforce it while the next does not, and it is also questionable why a state tag costs more in a larger city than a smaller one. It is plainly not fair and, yes, I know people who register vehicles in nearby counties to avoid the hassle that the Emission Centers present. Is that any way for us to live with one another?

Sheriff Hammond and five unfortunate Hamilton County commissioners will learn a lesson from this blunder. Jim, as well as Commissioners Greg Beck, Larry Henry and Chester Bankston, better plan on stronger election campaigns (Commissioners Jim Fields and Marty Haynes, who also voted for it, are unopposed) because, brother, on Wednesday each made a bunch of voters really mad. That should never be the purpose nor the intent of a sound government..

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