Red Light, Green Light

Did the city deliberately tailor the ordinance and bid requirements to favor only one red-light camera company?

On a bleak, bitter-cold morning six weeks ago, Carol Shepard entered her office at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters and greeted fellow workers with news that she'd dropped her reading glasses in the toilet.

As Christmas carols sounded in the background, Shepard's assistants struck up a playful discussion of the non-flushables they, too, accidentally let slip into the latrine over the years.

If only Shepard's announcement earlier that morning had generated similar interest.

Brian Stauffer
Joyce Aboussie
Joyce Aboussie

Twenty minutes prior to her bathroom mishap, Shepard stood before the Board of Police Commissioners and quietly recommended that American Traffic Solutions (ATS) be awarded a contract to bring traffic-surveillance cameras to city street corners.

As the board's procurement officer, Shepard argued that while the Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm had not submitted the lowest bid, the fact that the company recently installed a camera system in nearby Arnold influenced her decision.

Without further ado, the five-year contract for St. Louis received unanimous approval. No board member, including Mayor Francis Slay, asked any follow-up questions.

Following repeated queries from the Riverfront Times, however, the deal with ATS has also found its way into the toilet. The Board of Police Commissioners late last month revoked its verbal agreement with ATS, conceding that the state agency had failed to adhere to its own written guidelines when it awarded the multimillion-dollar contract. Specifically, board commissioner Major Paul Nocchiero confirmed to the Riverfront Times that Shepard did not assemble a selection committee to determine which of the five competing companies were best qualified for the job.

Shepard concedes that she never called references for any of the vendors, including ATS, nor did she review any of the technology employed by ATS or its rivals. She did not even make the twenty-minute drive to inspect ATS' system in Arnold, which last August became the first and only city in Missouri to photograph the license plates of vehicles that run red lights.

Shepard doesn't know who drew up the highly technical, eleven-page request for proposals (RFP) she used to arrive at her decision. Competing camera companies say specifications in that RFP favored the type of technology used by ATS, while disqualifying other vendors.

It is also unclear who drafted the ordinance authorizing the city to use the video surveillance equipment. Under intense lobbying from the mayor's office, the bill sailed through the St. Louis Board of Aldermen last October, becoming law in just two weeks. The ink on the ordinance was hardly dry when, a few days later, the police department put the contract out for bid. In doing so, it gave just ten days to respond and promised to name a winner by mid-December.

At the time, the aggressive schedule left many vendors questioning the city's rush. Now those vendors suspect the city deliberately tailored the ordinance and bid requirements to favor ATS.

"The process was totally unusual, especially when you look at how other major cities bid these projects out," says Mark Etzbach, regional sales director for Redflex Inc., one of the companies that failed to land the St. Louis contract. "Chicago, for example, did twelve months of due diligence before they chose a camera system.

"In St. Louis you had just ten days to respond. There were no oral presentations and no site visits. The public often perceives red-light cameras as Big Brother, so there's generally a lot of sensitivity around them, and cities really do their homework."

To hear the story in Francis Slay's office, the city's push for traffic cameras commenced on December 21, 2004. That's the day a hit-and-run driver sped through a stoplight on McCausland Avenue in Dogtown and killed 82-year-old Eunice Felder. Newspaper articles described Felder as a vivacious tap dancer who'd recently earned a gold medal for her skills in the Senior Olympics.

"That's pretty much what started it," recalls Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff. "After that accident, the mayor inquired about the camera technology, and we put it on the legislative agenda."

In early 2005, Rainford says, the mayor began lobbying Jefferson City lawmakers for legislation to permit the use of cameras statewide. When the bill failed in the General Assembly last spring, the administration went looking for ways to enact local legislation.

Eager to help was American Traffic Solutions, which set its sights on Missouri last March. Leading the charge was Jay Specter, then a consultant with the company.

"If you're the first person in, you're going to take the whole state," Specter explains. "You have a system in the ground, and administrators from other municipalities can come and look at it. They think: 'If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us.' It's simple human nature."

Red-light cameras have been in use in Europe for 40 years. In 1994, the same year ATS was founded, New York City became the first municipality in the United States to install the cameras. But only in recent years, with the advent of digital photography, has the technology really taken hold stateside. Today some 140 communities in 20 states use the equipment.

"We're very passionate about our business," says ATS president Jim Tuton. "It's not often that you get to be on the front end of multibillion-dollar business curve that delivers public safety and a major social benefit. I'm proud of that."

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