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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Going public with speed-zone camera details not so easy

A speed limit sign is seen along Stewart

A speed limit sign is seen along Stewart Avenue in Bethpage on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. Credit: Jeremy Bales

A Newsday story earlier this week noted that Nassau had denied the paper's request to release information about the county's much-hated school-zone speed camera program.

According to the county, the information -- on how many tickets had been issued, etc. -- was not public information because the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency was part of the state's district court system.

And Nassau is not alone. A Suffolk spokesman, in responding to a request by Judy Cartwright, Newsday's Community Watchdog columnist, said the county wouldn't confirm dismissal of a specific ticket because it was part of "court" documents.

Both counties are wrong.

David Bookstaver, director of communications for the state court system, said, "They are not a part of the court system."

And to make things even clearer, let's go to Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, the expert on the state's Freedom of Information Law -- which celebrated its 40th anniversary last month.

"These are administrative agencies set up to administer parking programs," he said. "The information is public under FOIL." In fact, Freeman said, even if the counties were correct in recasting agencies as part of a court, information still would be public -- under a different statute.

So, why make a hubbub about releasing public information?

Carole Wilkinson of Bellmore, who's lived in Nassau for 64 years, got a school ticket on Sept. 18 for speeding on South Oyster Bay Road near a private school. After she received the citation in the mail on Tuesday, the recently retired executive assistant for a New York City CEO climbed back into her car to see what she had missed.

The only thing she said she saw was a sign that said school zone, although there is a sign noting school hours along the roadway. And then she called County Executive Edward Mangano's office, where, she said, referring to her notes, that a constituent affairs worker told her the following: That school zone signs have been in school zones for years, and that speed-zone cameras operated all day.

"She told me to go to court, and I said I'm not going because I am going to lose," Wilkinson said Wednesday.

Wilkinson isn't the only Long Island resident confused or angry about cameras. In Nassau, residents have been hammering elected officials with questions about it. Wilkinson said she wanted to know how many tickets were issued, and where. She said she wanted to know how much money the tickets brought in.

That -- all of it -- is supposed to be public information under FOIL.

With the rollout of the school-zone speed camera operation in Nassau, and proposed extension of the red light camera program in Suffolk, it's information essential for Newsday -- or any other interested party -- to determine how well, and how fairly, cameras are working.

Of course, municipalities can use FOIL to slow the release of information. A spokesman for Mangano said Tuesday that Nassau would release information on school zone cameras at the end of the year, after it was reviewed by county officials. That release also likely would be timed after elections -- a political advantage with so many residents so angry, so close to Election Day.

There's a petition making the rounds asking Nassau to suspend the program. It came with an email seeking advice on where the request should go. To court? To the county? The answer: Any Nassau and state official, Republican or Democrat, who voted for the programs.

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