Traffic cameras bring tiny Ohio village to a stop

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“What we’ve seen from the field is red light cameras and safety cameras are both important tools in the safety tool box,” Adkins said, adding that they should complement, not replace, law enforcement and should be focused on safety, not boosting budgets.

Holly Calhoun doesn’t believe they were about safety in her hardscrabble village.

“Elmwood was just doing it because they needed money,” said the manager of Elmwood Quick Mart, which offers phone cards, lottery tickets and Mexican food, and advertises its willingness to accept food stamps.

“People couldn’t afford those tickets,” Calhoun said. “They can barely afford to pay their bills. It was pretty sad.”

Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many “inner-ring” American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.

But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village’s incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.

When William Peskin joined the police force in 1998, there were nine officers. Now the police chief is the only full-time law enforcement officer left. He said concerns grew after accidents around the elementary school; village officials looked into traffic cameras and became convinced that they were the most practical way to make the village safer.

Cameras at the village limits and in the school zone dramatically curtailed speeding once citations started going out, Peskin said. From 20,000 speeders clocked in a two-week trial period last summer, the number soon dropped to a quarter of that.

Former county prosecutor Mike Allen filed a lawsuit against the town. Among the plaintiffs: the Rev. Chau Pham, who said church attendance dropped by a third after that Sunday when so many congregants — including him — were ticketed; David Downs, owner of St. Bernard Polishing for 25 years, who said long-time customers had vowed to shop elsewhere because they had been ticketed; and a Habitat for Humanity worker who was cited four times.

“Elmwood Place is engaging in nothing more than a high-tech game of three-card monte,” Judge Robert P. Ruehlman wrote March 7 in a colorful opinion that has heartened camera foes across the country. “It is a scam that the motorists can’t win.”

The judge said the village was on pace to assess $2 million in six months (the village’s annual budget is $1.3 million). Maryland-based Optotraffic, owner and operator of the photo enforcement system in return for 40 percent of revenue, had already reaped $500,000 in about four months.

Used words such as “scheme,” ”sham,” ”stacked,” and “total disregard for due process,” Ruehlman declared the village’s photo-enforcement ordinance invalid and unenforceable.

Elmwood Place is appealing, and believes it has the law on its side.

“It’s unfortunate that the judge doesn’t see it as a safety issue,” Peskin said.

Ohio courts have upheld camera enforcement in some of the state’s biggest cities as a legitimate exercise of local government power; the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in 2008 on the city of Akron’s speeding cameras and approved them.

Akron began its program in 2005 after a 5-year-old child was killed. Some 3,000 citations in the first few weeks elicited public outcry, and then a lawsuit filed by attorney Warner Mendenhall after his wife Kelly was ticketed. Mendenhall said he found in his research that camera enforcement is often inconsistently carried out, the cameras aren’t always accurate, and that in many places, they are clearly used as a revenue booster.

Steve Fallis, the city’s assistant law director, said Akron uses the cameras only in school zones, and motorists have visual warnings they are in use. Any net income from the $100 citations goes into a city safety fund, not for the general budget. And there is no fee for an administrative hearing to challenge a citation. Elmwood Place charged $25

Mendenhall, whose wife’s ticket was tossed out by the city when she appealed a lack of signage at the time, isn’t convinced the legality has been settled. Maybe, he said, Elmwood Place will be the launching pad for the challenge that gets the matter to a higher authority.

“To have this patchwork quilt of laws … I really would hope that someone would take this on up to (U.S). Supreme Court,” Mendenhall said.

Recently, passions in Elmwood Place have cooled a bit. At a June council meeting, fewer than a dozen people turned out.

Taking a cigarette break out back, Mayor Stephanie Morgan talked briefly and reluctantly about the controversy, which she described as “challenging.”

She defended the cameras. “The speeding was just horrible,” Morgan said. But asked whether her constituents agree that cameras were the best solution, the 39-year-old lifelong resident repeated the question aloud and said: “You’ll have to ask them.”

Bill Wilson, 43, is running for village council in the fall election. He returned to Elmwood Place after living in southwest Florida for 20 years; there, he said, red-light cameras, speeding cameras, accident cameras and crime security cameras are commonplace.

“You get accustomed to it,” Wilson said.

In Elmwood Place, the cameras didn’t last long enough for anyone to grow accustomed to them. But apparently, they lasted longer than folks realized: On Thursday, Judge Ruehlman found that the camera company had continued to mail out citations for weeks after he ordered that it stop. He ruled Elmwood Village in contempt and said the cameras and equipment must be seized and stored until the case is resolved.

On a recent evening just before the contempt order, Holly Calhoun left her store, crossed the street and gazed up into a camera, wondering what, if anything, it was recording. Two men in a car stopped and asked what was going on. She told them she is opposed to cameras; they each gave her a thumb’s up and drove off.

Business, Calhoun said, has been slow to rebound; most people don’t seem to believe the cameras aren’t in full operation.

Elmwood Place is caught in a speed trap of its own making. On the one hand, the village faces a crippling financial blow if litigation succeeds in forcing it to pay back all the fines already collected plus legal costs; on the other, Calhoun and others think if the village wins its case and brings back the cameras, the effects on business could be catastrophic.

“I think it’s going to become a ghost town,” she said.

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