Red light-running Austin City workers escaping accountability

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Paying a municipal court fine for running a red light is enshrined City of Austin employee policy. But not all employees are obeying it, a KXAN Investigation found.

And in some cases, due to the way some city crews share vehicles, city staff suggest it’s all but impossible to identify who was behind the wheel – essentially allowing city staff to get away with a serious traffic violation and subsequent discipline.

The red light rule, brought forth in June 2008 and signed by City Manager Marc Ott made clear “City employees who receive a civil citation for running a red light while operating a City vehicle will be responsible for paying the fine in a timely manner.”

The Red Light Cameras were installed in 2009 in a bid to encourage drivers’ lawful behavior. For those five years, KXAN obtained public records showing 47 cases where a City of Austin vehicle was caught on camera.

In one incident, 6 a.m. June 19th 2013 a Red Light Camera at IH-35 frontage road and 15th St., captured a city-owned truck towing a long trailer loaded with heavy machinery. The record showed the light was red for more than a second when the truck entered the well-traveled intersection.

No city logo on the truck is visible in the video, but the camera did record the license plate – enough to record a violation and issue a citation. In this case, the court records showed the fine was never paid and there is no record in court explaining why.

Typically, if city staff knows who the driver is, the citation will be forwarded to them at the same time city managers sign a form waiving liability in the matter. A second Municipal Court case file will be opened naming the individual and linked to the first one naming the city, according to Municipal Court staff.

Who’s paying?

45 of the 47 cases KXAN examined did not include that secondary case file link to an individual. That suggests when a $75. fine was recorded as paid, it was paid by a city department. In some cases, that included a $10. to $25. delinquent fee.

KXAN requested the number of times the City picked up the tab for an unknown red light-running employee. A list of 28 was provided. That list includes the names of six individuals. A city staffer noted those named violators could have first paid their citation using a city credit card or paid online, further diluting certainty of who paid for what.

Who’s behind the wheel?

KXAN also requested who the driver was in each case and the kind of discipline they received.

The City of Austin has a fleet of more than four-thousand vehicles, according to a spokesperson. And because some fleet vehicles are shared on various projects, it’s not always possible to know who an individual driver is when a traffic violation is recorded.

That leaves learning if one department ran more lights than others. KXAN requested Fleet Services staff to list which vehicles were assigned to what department when a red light was run.

A list of 43 was provided. It was noted two vehicles’ assignments were unknown. And even though the Red Light Cameras recorded license plates and vehicle type, it appears a total of six vehicles of the 47; the city simply has no information on.

The list also included ten where the vehicles have since gone to auction.

Where it was known which department the vehicle was assigned to are listed here:

  • Austin Police – 9 (6 didn’t have flashers on)
  • Water – 6
  • Solid Waste – 5
  • Fleet Services – 3
  • Planning Development and Review – 3
  • Austin Energy – 2
  • Transportation – 1
  • Watershed Protection – 1
  • Public Works – 1

Disciplining those who are caught and named

Austin’s decade-old driver safety manual lays out an internal discipline system chart. Running a red light is judged five points against the employee. Accumulating ten demerit points in 36 months can result in a city employee losing their privilege of driving city vehicles. In extreme cases, an employee can be fired.

KXAN asked the city for information on the number of employees fired for traffic violations and the details for termination between fiscal 2009 and 2014. We are waiting on a response.

Police vehicles

The red light violation cases included nine marked and unmarked Austin Police vehicles – six did not appear to be running their emergency lights.

Police Chief of Staff Raul Munguia told KXAN officers must run their flashing lights when entering an intersection against the traffic signal. And they are supposed to only run a red light only when safe and when responding to an emergency call.

If APD determines who a red light-running officer is, that officer could face reprimand or formal discipline, staff said.

In one case, from Aug 6th 2013 an unmarked, black Dodge police vehicle runs a red light on the Interstate 35 frontage road. No flashing lights are seen.

A Police spokesperson told KXAN the officer told his superiors he had no excuse and paid the ticket – albeit late, prompting a $25 late penalty. It is unknown what the officer’s discipline may have been. Austin Police verbal reprimands or written disciplinary memos that do not result in unpaid time off are not public record.

Finally, KXAN asked the city’s Human Resources Department if there are plans to tighten vehicle use rules to better track who’s behind the wheel across departments. We’re waiting on a response.

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