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ST. LOUIS COUNTY • A group of local ministers today called on County Council members to put the debate over speed enforcement cameras before voters.

The ministers don't believe the cameras have made roads safer and argue that the tickets they generate are hurting people who can least afford them. They want the County Council to place the issue of regulating speed cameras on a ballot.

"We certainly think they need to put an end to these things just being used as speed traps," said the Rev. B.T. Rice of New Horizon Christian Church, who organized a news conference this morning at Shalom Church City of Peace in Florissant with eight other ministers from north St. Louis County.

"I've got about another 20 ministers who want to join our group, but we want to keep it manageable," Rice said.

Rice said he also brings with him the support of the NAACP, of which he is the first vice-president for the St. Louis chapter.

The ministers' group, which also includes the Rev. Sammie Jones of Mount Zion Baptist Church Christian Complex, sent a letter two weeks ago to County Council Chairman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, asking him to place the issue on the council's agenda because the cameras appear to be "nothing more than a 'money grab.'"

Jones said camera companies and local politicians have pressured them to back off of the issue.

"We've received a number of calls to cancel this press conference and not be involved in this," he said, adding that he wouldn't name names when it comes to the political figures. "This is obviously a money making effort that's not about making roads safer, but making a profit."

O'Mara has not responded to the letter and didn't return phone calls from the Post-Dispatch for comment, though he recently has voiced support of the idea of regulating speed cameras through a ballot initiative.

Most of the speed cameras in the area are owned and operated by B&W Sensors. American Traffic Solutions, which operates a camera in Calverton Park, sent a representative to the press conference.

Ed Dowd, an attorney for the company, which also owns and operates the red-light cameras in St. Louis, said his company tried to halt the press conference only because the company believes there is a better way to regulate speed cameras than through a ballot initiative.

He said ATS supports the idea of limiting speed cameras to school and construction zones as well as "anywhere that is deemed high-volume and dangerous." Dowd said the County Council could adopt an ordinance that allows cameras to be erected only with the blessing of the county's highway department or the Missouri Department of Transportation within a few weeks, whereas a ballot question could take months or years.

Dowd pitched the idea to County Police Chief Tim Fitch, who in large part ignited the debate after sending a letter in August to the county counselor, Pat Redington, asking whether it would be legal to amend the charter, through a public vote, to restrict the cameras to school and work zones. Redington has not responded to the letter.

Fitch didn't bite.

"Every municipality would claim they're there for safety reasons because it's a dangerous location and that would continue the loophole for them to continue what they're doing today," Fitch said.

County Executive Charlie Dooley has been lukewarm to the idea, saying he's unsure whether the county can legally interfere with the ordinances of municipalities.

The county has amended its charter at least once before, in the 1970s, making it impossible for a municipality to issue private security licenses.

Should County Council members remain silent on speed cameras, a costly petition drive could get the question on the ballot. Fitch said he had already been contacted by several "well-funded" organizations interested in sponsoring what he believes will be a popular issue with the public.

About 24 ballot initiatives to either restrict or outright ban speed and red-light cameras have gone before voters in communities throughout the country, and all except two have passed in their entirety.

In St. Louis County, about 13 municipalities, most of them clustered along Interstates 70 and 170 east of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, now use speed cameras. The cameras generate tickets but not necessarily other legal consequences.

For now, Fitch has not taken aim at red light cameras, saying the complaints he hears are about speed cameras that may be moved around and used without warnings to motorists.

Rice said most of the municipalities that use speed cameras were financially strapped and were using the cameras to boost revenue.

Police and public officials in those communities have often argued that the cameras are intended to make roads safer.

Uplands Park Police Chief Stephen Abbington, for example, said that his community began using a speed camera about a year ago and that it had generated only about $29,000 — much lower than the city projected.

"Everyone thinks Natural Bridge is a drag zone, so it's a deterrent to make them slow down," Abbington said. "Yes, it helps out in revenue, but that's not what the purpose of the camera is. It's to make people slow down and take heed of speed limits."

But the Rev. Freddy Clark of Shalom Church City of Peace believes the cameras are targeting are located in predominantly African American communities in North St. Louis County and unfairly targeting low-income or no-income families in his parish.

Clark vowed that the group of ministers will remain united in their call to amend the county charter via a ballot initiative no matter what the pressure is from political figures or otherwise.

"As pastors, we have a moral obligation to do this," he said.

Jones agreed.

"These small municipalities are setting (the cameras) up to build their budgets and our people are hurting," he said. "There is no one to advocate for them. And when they have to pay for them and pay for court or battle them in court, they can't support their church because they're spending their time dealing with these tickets." 

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