The recent change to the rules for New Orleans' traffic cameras that has infuriated some residents was discussed at length by members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration, who considered informing the public but ultimately elected to keep the change secret, records show.
Aides to Cantrell, as well as the company that runs the camera program, called for a public relations campaign to inform drivers that they'd need to cut their speed to avoid tickets in school zones and other areas, according to emails about the change.
One staffer noted that to get drivers to change their behavior and slow down, which Cantrell has since argued was the reason the threshold for issuing tickets was lowered, people had to know about the new policy.
“The suggestion about delaying implementation of the mph change until February coupled with a PR campaign could be a workable one,” said city economist Deborah Vivien in an email received by Cantrell's top deputies, including Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño and Public Works Director Keith LaGrange.
She added that "behavioral adjustments" would come "as long as drivers are aware of the impending change."
But those suggestions were not heeded by Cantrell or her top officials, resulting in unexpected tickets for thousands of motorists who thought they were driving within the well-established cushion between the posted speed limit and the trigger for setting off the cameras.
The emails, obtained by The New Orleans Advocate through a public records request, do not explain why a warning was never sent out or show who ultimately made that decision.
But they do indicate that at least some officials in City Hall, including those working closely with the camera program, thought the best course of action would be to make sure the public knew about the changes.
For years, the city’s official policy was that traffic cameras would not issue tickets unless a vehicle was traveling 26 mph or more in a 20-mph school zone or at least 10 mph over the speed limit outside of school zones. The city lowered those triggers by 2 mph each on Feb. 4, a few weeks after it eliminated a number of the cameras.
Those changes in the ticketing thresholds, however, were not known to drivers until media outlets reported about people getting tickets at the lower speeds in early April.
Months before Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration trimmed the excessive speed that triggers New Orleans' traffic cameras last month, offici…
About 13,205 drivers were ticketed driving 25 mph in school zones during the two months before the lower threshold was revealed through media reports, according to an analysis included in the emails in response to questions from Councilwoman Helena Moreno’s office.
The analysis does not include the number of drivers who were caught at 24 mph in school zones or those who were tagged by cameras outside of school zones.
Cantrell, who campaigned on getting rid of all the traffic cameras, has defended the changes in the rules as necessary to improve safety.
"The data showed us we have more people not abiding by the 20-mph limit in our city ... a behavioral problem that we have to rein in," Cantrell said in a video posted online by her office this week. "That was the decision I made, and I stand by it 100 percent."
She has not directly answered questions about why no public announcement of the change was made in advance, despite arguments from some city staffers that to change drivers' behavior, they'd need to know the new speed limits were in place.
The secrecy has led many residents to believe the new policy was less about increasing public safety and more about the millions of dollars in fines a lower threshold would add to city coffers. It has also drawn criticism from the City Council, which will hold a hearing on the matter on Monday.
"Public safety can be achieved by voluntary compliance rather than speed traps," Councilman Jason Williams said in a press release last week. "There has to be actual notice and robust education about permitted behavior and policy reasons behind changes the administration seeks to implement."
In an emailed statement, Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell acknowledged there was a "robust internal discussion around the decision" and that the "change in enforcement was made to discourage people speeding in school zones when children are present.
"Some iteration of a 'PR campaign' around the change in the threshold was one of several options on the table," Tidwell said. "It was ultimately not the direction chosen."
Tidwell did not respond to specific questions about who made the decision or what their rationale was.
The first email about the proposed changes came in mid-December, as officials were trying to figure out how to implement the administration's pledge to eliminate some of the cameras.
City officials were apparently concerned that the change could lead to a legal challenge from Verra Mobility, the firm that operates the traffic cameras, since it had not yet recouped the money it spent setting up some of the devices.
In a December email to others involved with the camera program, Vivien, the city's economist, asked whether the city should bring up plans to change the threshold with Verra at the same time as it requested that some cameras be turned off.
Holding off on the request to lower the speed trigger could allow the city to use it as a negotiating tool, since the firm "will also benefit from the increased revenue," she said.
Digging in her heels despite public uproar, Mayor LaToya Cantrell this week defended her surprise move to reduce the speeds that prompt traffi…
New Orleans City Council members are calling on Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration to explain why it lowered the speed threshold for traff…
Initially, the city planned to have Verra alter the speed thresholds on Jan. 1 but to give drivers a 30-day grace period when they would get warnings instead of tickets.
But Justin McDole, regional account manager for Verra, said the company’s software would not allow for issuing tickets and warnings at the same time.
“I might suggest that the city consider a media campaign in lieu of the warning letters and have the threshold changes made in February" instead of Jan. 1, McDole wrote.
Public notice is mentioned elsewhere in the discussions, though no one ever speaks out against letting people know about changes.
But the emails suggest someone made a deliberate decision not to issue a notification to residents.
A key question about the recent unannounced changes made to traffic cameras in New Orleans remains unanswered.
On Jan. 3, city Chief Technology Officer Jon Wisbey circulated a draft of a press release that was to go out the next day, announcing both which cameras were being turned off and that the city would be trimming the speed threshold.
“We have included language on the proposed change to the threshold for ticketing violations in the third paragraph and recommend including it, but leave it at comms’ discretion how to best communicate this change,” Wisbey wrote, referring to the administration’s communications staff.
Wisbey’s email said that Montaño had signed off on the press release. Separately, officials at the Department of Public Works and the New Orleans Police Department, which oversee the cameras program, approved the language.
None of the subsequent emails about the press release provided to The Advocate discuss the thresholds, and the release was eventually sent out without any notification about the change. The documents do not include any emails or messages to or from Cantrell herself related to the deliberations.
Officials continued to discuss the thresholds in the context of media requests, however.
Three days after the change went into effect, Vivien prepared a statement the city could issue in response to questions from The Advocate about how removing some of the cameras had affected city revenues. She mentioned that the numbers prepared for the city's response did not mention the change in the thresholds.
Is there a traffic camera nearby? It can be tough to remember.
"Please let me know if you want to include these items," she wrote to Montaño.
Montaño forwarded the statement to the communications staff without those changes.
The decision by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration’s to quietly reduce the margin of error for drivers passing through zones m…