Friday, April 12, 2024

Fiddlehead streetlights stand at Russell Field. The city’s 6,400 street lights and 575 park lights will be converted to LEDs from traditional bulbs over the next three years. (Photo: Elizabeth Galle)

The city’s 6,400 street lights and 575 park lights will be converted to LEDs from traditional bulbs over the next three years, but in approving the first $2 million for the project Monday the City Council faced a bigger decision: Whether to put up security cameras at the same time.

“The city electrician can put cameras in while they’re doing the lights — it’s not free, but it keeps you from mobilizing twice for the same site — but we can’t yet tell the city manager what, if anything, we would like the city electrician to do,” councillor Craig Kelly reported to Monday’s meeting of the council.

“Until we tell him that, the city electrician will continue to do light work without doing anything with surveillance cameras. Which might be exactly what we want, but at the moment it’s a default position,” Kelley said.

The council’s concern about surveillance cameras goes back at last to December 2008, when it was found that Homeland Security grant-funded cameras had been installed without council knowledge. The cameras were never turned on, but they also haven’t been taken down. While other councillors have expressed outrage over them, demanding answers and for the devices to be taken down, Kelley has been the most persistent in asking for a policy discussion about them. With the election of a mayor in late February, Kelley became head of the Public Safety Committee and finally got a start to those discussions by holding them himself.

He held a hearing on the issue Aug. 13, with the results being a call for more discussion about the fine line between crime prevention and invading the public’s privacy and how to set policy to encourage one without causing the other.

“I’m willing to hold more meetings, but I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I don’t want to bring it back and find out we’re not capable of deciding something,” Kelley said.

Councillor Tim Toomey, who has leaned toward using the cameras as a crime deterrent since a shooting in Area IV in the summer of 2011, replied clearly that he wanted more conversation on cameras, and Minka vanBeuzekom agreed, calling herself so far “agnostic on whether they should be a tool in our public safety toolbox” even after attending the August hearing:

I do remember the state police officer saying that people soon realize where you put the cameras, and crime moves outside the sphere that can be observed by the cameras — which would kind of defeat the purpose if we’re going to affix them on streetlights. But I was also surprised at the extent of cameras that exist already. Like councillor Toomey, I’d be interested in continuing the conversation.

The councillors approved the LED streetlight money 8-0, with Leland Cheung not voting because he is overseas. The total cost of the project is estimated at $6 million, and the city is expected to achieve more than 40 percent energy savings from current streetlight use when the project is done, according to a report from the office of City Manager Robert W. Healy.