Rogers getting up to speed with radar

ROGERS – Village Council is moving forward with plans for a speed-monitoring surveillance system as a cost-efficient way to address the problem of motorists racing through this community.

As part of the plan, council voted at this week’s meeting to dissolve the one-officer police department and mayor’s court, effective immediately.

This occurred after council met at length with Dorian Grubaugh, a representative for the Maryland-based Optotraffic LLC, which manufactures and operates automated speed-enforcement machines that catch speeding motorists, using laser radar and cameras. Optotraffic would operate and maintain the $80,000 machines and issue the speeding citations in return for 40 percent of the fine money.

The only expense to Rogers would be in hiring a law enforcement officer to review the citation information and an attorney to conduct the administrative hearings for motorists who want to contest the citation. Optotraffic would notify motorists by mail they had been cited.

Following Grubaugh’s presentation, council voted to have Optotraffic provide them with a proposed ordinance and contract for the village solicitor to review. The proposed ordinance creates the law allowing speeding motorists in the village to be cited for a civil traffic violation instead of a criminal traffic offense. Unlike a criminal traffic offense, civil citations would not result in any points against the driver’s license, nor would it have any effect on the driver’s insurance, he said.

Grubaugh said the average speeding fine in Ohio is $100, plus another $25 to cover administrative costs, with Rogers keeping $75. One of Optotraffic’s customers – the village of Elmwood near Cincinnati – received $800,000 in fine money during the first six months the system was in operation.

A judge last week threw out Elmwood’s law allowing for the speed camera system, calling it a scam designed to generate revenue for the cash-strapped village of 2,000 people. The judge said the system for challenging citations was rigged against the motorists, thereby denying them due process under the law, and that the village had also failed to display the required signage warning motorists they were being electronically monitored.

Grubaugh said Optotraffic has survived other legal challenges and expects to win on appeal in the Elmwood case as well.

Meanwhile, state legislators near Elmwood introduced a bill prohibiting the use of these systems, but Grubaugh said past efforts to pass a ban have failed. “We’re not concerned with the legislation. The legislation is proposed every year,” he said.

Village Solicitor Michelle Simonelli warned council to prepare for the public backlash. “People will get angry over this and will appeal it on principle,” she said.

Former mayor’s court clerk and village resident Katrina Moore saw if differently. “Most people will be glad for this,” she said, a sentiment shared by council.

“We clearly have a problem, and with the sale traffic, it’s a real problem,” said Councilwoman Jane Balmenti, referring to the weekly Rogers Sale flea market that can draw up to 30,000 people during the summer.

Rogers, a crossroads community of 237 residents, sits at the intersection of state Routes 7 and 154, and likely sees tens of thousands of vehicles pass through the intersection daily. As such, it is also experiencing increased traffic from trucks of all sizes servicing nearby shale gas drilling sites.

Grubaugh said the main reason for using Optotraffic is to get motorists to slow down, and it has proven to do just that, reducing the number of violators to 1 percent of vehicle traffic. One Optotraffic client went from 1,000 tickets per day to 60.

“Whatever the media wants to say is inaccurate. The goal is safety,” he said, adding that Columbiana and Salineville are also considering contracting with Optotraffic.

Council then went into closed session with Simonelli to discuss personnel matters and emerged 20 minutes later to pass a resolution dissolving the police department and mayor’s court.

The village only has one officer, Jerry Ludt, who was employed 10 hours per week but had not worked since January. The only other person to lose their job as a result of the decision is Moore, who served as mayor’s court clerk at $100 per month. Moore said the last time they held mayor’s court was sometime last year.

Mayor Sharon Hebron said the action was necessary to pave the way for council to contract with Optotraffic, and the village could no longer afford having a police officer or mayor’s court.

All of this left resident Kevin Shaffer concerned. “This is basically telling the people we have no cop here,” he said.

Hebron said the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office will continue to respond to calls inside the village, which it has done even when the village had a police officer, and Sheriff Ray Stone assured her his deputies will patrol the town as possible.

Stone confirmed that is what he told Hebron. “I told her if you are without an officer we’ll be there. We go there anyway. Always have,” he said.

Hebron said the village last had a full-time police officer from 2000 to 2004, when they were able to obtain a federal COPS grant to cover 75 percent of the cost.