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Suffolk Vows To End Red Light Camera Secrets

Associated Press

After months of secrecy, Suffolk County said they will make public documents and data about their controversial red light camera program.

The program fined motorists some $17 million in tickets and fines for running red lights. Even though state law requires annual disclosure, the agency in charge denied multiple freedom of information requests going back years.

“I’ve been looking for this data for so long,” said Alec Slatky, legislative analyst for AAA, the automotive safety group. “It's frustrating because it’s just a PDF file sitting on someone's computer.”

Slatky wants to analyze Suffolk’s crash and violation data to make sure Suffolk’s red light camera program is actually making the streets safer, instead of just making money for the county.

Slaky worries Suffolk is not focused on deterring dangerous accidents as much as the county wants to ticket for minor offenses.

“I’m definitely curious to see that but I won’t get it if I’m just going to be told, 'we’re not going to give you the information.'”

WSHU's request for the data was also denied.

The agency in charge, the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, has said it is, in fact, not an “agency.” Rather, it’s part of the court system and therefore exempt from the state’s freedom of information laws.

Transparency experts say the traffic violation bureaus of New York City, Nassau, and Westchester all comply with open records laws. They add that even if Suffolk wants to consider itself a “court,” it still has to make the data public.

“There are numerous other statutes that do apply to the courts and the general presumption is that court records are indeed public,” says Bob Freeman, Executive Director of the state’s Committee on Open Government.

And it’s not just freedom of information laws Suffolk is ignoring. State law mandates the county hand over data to the state Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s office. Records from those offices indicate the county has not followed the law, but the County said their lack of compliance is just a misunderstanding.

“You should have gotten the report, and I apologize for that,” said Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk’s Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, of WSHU’s records request.

According to Margiotta, the county’s Department of Public Works should have released the records instead of referring the request to his agency, which issues blanket denials of all requests.

Freeman said that state laws mandate records are presumed public and that blanket denials are improper.

To cure the confusion, Margiotta said late Friday, he will post the annual data reports online.

“And whoever needs it can get it there," he said. "And the county can go ahead and send it to the governor and everyone else, but it will be there on our website, because of all this.”

Margiotta also said he would like to post other data that would help safety groups judge the red light camera program’s effectiveness, but he said he can’t do that yet because the current computer system doesn’t allow it. He said it may take an act of the County Legislature to solve that problem.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.
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