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Newspaper Demands Private-Public Records

TAMPA (CN) - The St. Petersburg Times sued Kenneth City and American Traffic Solutions, which won a city contract to issue traffic citations to red-light violators. The city and the private company both blew off the newspaper's FOIA requests; ATS said it "does not consider records it creates and maintains to be 'public records.'" The newspaper disagrees.

Dozens of lawsuits all over the nation have claimed, unsuccessfully, that cities and states cannot give private contractors the right to issue traffic citations via camera.

The Times Publishing Co.'s complaint in Pinellas County Court offers a twist on those lawsuits. It is one in a series of challenges in recent years to government's powers to privatize government services, from prisons to garbage collecting to court filings to waging war.

Florida's governor signed into law HB 325 on May 13, 2010, which authorized cities to use "traffic infraction devices" such as red-light cameras, to issue citations.

Kenneth City gave American Traffic Solutions its contract before the governor signed the law, but the company did not start issuing citations until Nov. 1; the city and ATS began issuing "warning" citations on Oct. 1.

On Dec. 1, a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked the city for its public records on the warning notices and citations it had issued.

A corporal in the Police Department wrote to reporter Anne Lindberg: "I am unable to give you the information that you requested on the red light camera violators. I do not believe that it would be legal for me to give out violators [sic] names." (Brackets in complaint.

An ATS attorney wrote to Lindberg that "ATS does not consider records it creates and maintains to be 'public records.'" ATS offered to tell Lindberg "the number of violations that have been received, but not the names of the drivers."

In a subsequent interview with the police chief, the chief told Lindberg "that the city does receive a report from ATS containing the names of the alleged red light violators," according to the complaint. But the city refused to release the records, claiming disclosure would "violate the Drivers Privacy Protection Act."

The Times says it "has a clear legal and constitutional right to inspect all public records to which no statutory exemption applies," and adds that "the city has a mandatory and nondiscretionary duty to permit the inspection of all nonexempt public records."

The Times wants to see the records. It is represented by George Rahdert with Rahdert, Steele, Reynolds & Driscoll.

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