Mayor LaToya Cantrell told the City Council on Monday that it was her decision to lower the speed threshold for traffic camera tickets in New Orleans and that she opted not to notify the public about the change because she did not “want to encourage people to break the law.”
The rare in-person appearance by Cantrell before the council’s Budget Committee capped weeks of controversy over the way the new, lower triggers for tickets were rolled out.
For years, drivers traveling through 20-mph school zones could go up to 26 mph before getting a ticket, while those passing traffic cameras not in school zones could get up to 10 mph over the limit before triggering the cameras. On Feb. 4, the administration lowered those thresholds to 24 mph in school zones and 8 mph over the limit in other areas — changes that were not revealed until media reports about drivers getting ticketed at the lower levels surfaced in early April.
The decision resulted in the issuance of more than 41,000 tickets to motorists who thought they were following the law under the city's previous, publicly announced policy.
The secrecy of the change drew a rebuke from council members, who argued that if the move was prompted by public safety concerns, the best approach would have been to tell residents of the planned change so they would slow down.
Administration officials said Monday that there are no plans to refund or forgive those tickets, which are projected to bring about $1.1 million into city coffers.
Cantrell initially made a populist push to dismantle the city's entire network of traffic cameras a highlight of her mayoral campaign in 2017, but once in office she said she would remove only some of those outside school zones.
On Monday, she took full responsibility for both the shrinkage of the long-standing cushion for drivers and the decision not to let the public know ahead of time.
"That is a policy decision I absolutely stand by and one that is making these school zones safer for our people," said Cantrell, who noted that about 20 percent of drivers exceed the posted speed limits in school zones.
"I tell you if I could have gone to zero (mph over the limit), I would have done so. The city attorney advised me that going to 4 (mph over the posted limit) was the lowest we could go" without raising legal challenges about the calibration of the cameras, Cantrell said.
Council members, and many members of the public, have focused their ire not on the specific speed drivers are allowed to go, but on the lack of information provided to the public. If the question truly was one of public safety, several council members argued, the city should have done all it could to make sure drivers knew to slow down.
"If it would have been announced, drivers could have changed their driving patterns," said Councilman Jared Brossett, who chairs the Budget Committee.
Cantrell said: "I did not want to disclose that because I did not want to encourage people to break the law" by exceeding 20 mph.
"What I made very clear by not disclosing is (that) it is unacceptable to speed in the school zones in New Orleans," she added later, before leaving Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño to answer questions from the council. “I stand by that decision and will not in any way apologize for that. It’s unacceptable: 1 mile over, 2 miles over, 4 to 8 miles over.”
Cantrell's own staff had said the best way to change driver behavior would be to mount a public relations campaign before the changes were put in place, but those recommendations went unheeded, according to city emails reviewed by The New Orleans Advocate last week.
Those emails did not show Montaño arguing in favor of public notification, though he did not weigh in against it either. On Monday, he appeared to find it difficult to justify the mayor’s decision.
Councilwoman Helena Moreno asked Montaño point-blank, "Why would you not alert the public then so they could change their behavior and therefore the school zones would be safer? Do you, as chief administrative officer, think the public should have been alerted to this change?"
Montaño did not directly answer her questions.
“I serve at the pleasure of the mayor and the administration, and ... ultimately as with any elected official the policy decision resides with those elected officials," he said.
Brossett later asked whether a warning might have changed driver behavior.
Montaño responded that “potentially I think the data does demonstrate that.”
“I think the mayor really wanted to articulate that the warning should be at the 20-mph threshold, and the buffer was not something she or her office was willing to take into account,” he said.
At least 41,000 tickets went out to motorists driving 24 mph or 25 mph during the two months before the new policy was revealed through media reports, Montaño told the council. The city typically collects on only about half the traffic camera tickets it issues, and Montaño said the city expects to bring in about $1.1 million in additional revenue from those tickets.
Those figures do not include drivers who were caught by cameras outside of school zones while driving 8 mph or 9 mph over the speed limit — speeds that had been permissible under the old rules.
For those caught by the cameras, there does not appear to be much hope of mercy from the city.
Brossett pushed Montaño and Chief Financial Officer Norman White about whether they had plans to forgive the tickets issued before the changes were widely known. No such plan is in the works, they said, prompting Brossett to say he would keep calling them back before the committee until something is worked out.
Not doing so, he argued, was unfair to those caught unaware.
“If drivers would have known the change in policy, they could have altered their driving behavior — which should have been the goal if this is all about public safety,” he said.