Citing legal and ethical concerns, Mayor Keith Gaskin on Friday vetoed the city council’s decision to install cameras that would help police identify and ticket drivers with no vehicle insurance.
In his veto, Gaskin said the city lacks an “official” Attorney General’s Opinion on whether using surveillance equipment for that purpose and has concerns such a program would be ineffective.
“Every person who drives a vehicle should have insurance, per state law,” Gaskin’s official statement reads. “However, fining a driver for lack of such insurance will not likely result in the purchase of more insurance policies.”
The council voted 5-1 on Tuesday to contract with Atlanta-based Securix for the cameras that would photograph the license plates of passing drivers. Those tag numbers would be compared with a database to see if the vehicle was insured, and if not, a police officer would send the driver a citation. Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens, who represents Ward 2, was the lone opposing vote.
Drivers who are cited can take their chances in court or pay a $300 fee and enter a diversion program that will require them to provide proof of insurance and to watch an educational video about the need for auto insurance. The city and the company will split the fee.
The program would come at no cost to the city, and Securix would reimburse city police officers who write the tickets to the tune of $25 an hour.
Speaking to The Dispatch, Gaskin said he fears the technology would disproportionately impact poor residents without encouraging more compliance with the law.
“Usually the poor are those who suffer the most,” he said. “There are members of our community who will suffer unfairly because of this because I think many of the ones who will be cited for this couldn’t afford to have car insurance and won’t be able to afford the citation.”
While he understands the council looking favorably on a free program that would generate revenue for the police department, Gaskin believes the “unintended consequences” outweigh the potential benefits.
“We don’t even know how much it would generate,” he said. “I just think this was done too quickly without enough discussion and debate.”
Is it even legal?
A state law passed in 2009 prohibits automatic license plate readers or any video recording device from capturing and ticketing violations of “traffic signals, traffic speeds or other traffic laws, rules or regulations on any public street, road or highway within this state or to impose or collect any civil or criminal fine, fee or penalty.”
Robert Wilkinson, city attorney for Ocean Springs — which uses the technology — who also represents Securix, told the council on Tuesday and at a work session last week that an Attorney General’s Opinion limited that law to such things as running red lights and speeding. Therefore it did not prohibit using those methods to enforce vehicle insurance laws.
Both Gaskin and City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the city has found no “official” AG Opinion to that effect, something Gaskin cites in his veto.
Turnage said he asked Wilkinson for a copy of the AG Opinion following a March 31 work session where Securix first presented to the council. Turnage then followed up with an email requesting it.
Only about five minutes before Tuesday’s regular council meeting started, Turnage said, he received a reply from Wilkinson saying there was “no official” AG Opinion.
“I don’t want to accuse the other lawyer of misrepresenting, but my impression was they had an official opinion,” Turnage told The Dispatch on Friday.
Turnage did not inform the council of the email during the meeting, even as the vote was being discussed and taken.
“On the agenda it said ‘discuss.’ It didn’t say ‘discuss/approve,’ so I thought there was going to be discussion and no action,” he said. “I haven’t even seen the contract yet either. .. They voted to proceed, but only when we had a contract in place, so I thought we had plenty of time to (check on the AG Opinion).”
The more Turnage thought about it afterward, the more concerned he became about the legality of the program.
“I’m not going to be so bold as to say I’m sure it is illegal, but I am sure I’m going to need an AG’s Opinion,” he said.
What happens now?
At least two-thirds of the council, four members, would have to vote to override the veto, meaning Tuesday’s voting margin will be more than enough to do it. This is Gaskin’s fourth veto of a council vote since he took office July 1.
The council has overridden each of the previous three.
Gaskin said he and some councilmen have heard from citizens opposing the insurance cameras, and he believes the questions surrounding the program at least merit more discussion.
“It’s important to have a veto,” he said. “When I feel strongly about a decision that’s made, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do a veto. The idea is to give the council more time to reconsider. … In this situation, probably more so than my other vetoes, there’s a much better chance it will be upheld.”
One difference in this case is that Mickens is on the mayor’s side.
“I believe the mayor will get the support he needs from the council to uphold this veto,” Mickens told The Dispatch. “… We don’t know if it’s valid because we don’t have an AG Opinion. My question to the council is, ‘Guys, what is the urgency here?’”
Mickens, too, is worried about unintended consequences.
“Look, I have four vehicles, and they’re all insured,” he said. “I believe people should follow the law. But there are circumstances sometimes where people are choosing which bill to pay.”
At least one councilman who supports the program, Ward 5’s Stephen Jones, so far remains unmoved after Gaskin’s veto.
In a written statement he issued Friday evening, Jones said he sees the program as making the city safer in multiple ways. He believes the “insurance confirmation piece” has overshadowed the initiative’s greater purpose.
“These cameras would not only be used to confirm insurance but to also be able to be used to identify stolen vehicles, and vehicles that have been involved in a crime,” Jones wrote. “This would assist the police officers in a huge way. I understand the concern of creating a hardship for those that cannot afford insurance, but it’s my position that it is not our job as elected officials to create ways for a person to break the law, but instead help them find a way to abide by the law.
“The saying of ‘ignorance is bliss’ is not something I believe is the right way of fixing a problem. I believe that as we create a safer Columbus, this would better attract industry and better paying jobs that could help people that cannot currently afford insurance get and maintain insurance,” he added. “I think turning a blind eye is not the right answer.”
Jones also wrote he does not believe it’s fair to penalize citizens who have vehicle insurance.
“Any citizen that is involved in a car accident involving an uninsured motorist, I encourage you to contact the person that vetoed this safety program to discuss your concerns,” he wrote.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.