Sunday, June 23, 2024

Devices that photograph license plates of parked cars are being considered by Somerville city councilors. (Photo: Municipal Parking Systems Inc.)

A move toward using cameras to enforce parking laws is underway by Somerville’s City Council, starting in Davis Square trouble spots. The council’s Legislative Matters Committee recommended Tuesday that the full council enact a state law letting parking tickets be mailed in addition to placed on cars.

The proposal involves installation of devices called Solar SafetySticks on curbs near parking enforcement problem areas such as bus stops, crosswalks and bike lanes. The devices would take pictures of cars’ license plates for the city to later decide if there has been a parking violation and get a ticket sent to the address where the license plate is registered.

“This would be a great way for us to better enhance our enforcement” of violators, said Suzanne Rinfret, Somerville’s director of traffic and parking. “We have limited staff, and short of putting somebody in every illegal spot, we’re not going to catch them all, unfortunately.”

A first test of the technology took place July 1 to Aug. 10 in two locations in Davis Square, recording 420 violations. No tickets were issued during that pilot period; the next pilot, likely with warning that the system was in place, would return to those locations – a crosswalk and bus stop in front of and opposite the bfresh grocery store, where people often park or double park to run in for a quick purchase. The area has a fire hydrant and a space for parking by people with disabilities.

While councilors on the committee supported the implementation of the technology, they also want oversight. In Somerville, if municipal government wants to deploy surveillance technology, an impact report must be submitted to the Mayor’s Office and the City Council for approval. That report includes details about how, when and where the technology will be used, its expense and effect on privacy. Parking ticket devices are exempted from the requirement, but the committee recommended that the council change that.

“I can understand the exempting of it, but I also can understand when we’re starting to put cameras all over the place, folks want to know where the data is and where it can go,” councilor J.T. Scott said. “So I can appreciate the caution.”

Rinfret said that the solar-powered devices will cost nothing upfront; the seller, Municipal Parking Systems Inc., takes a percentage of revenue from each parking ticket.

“These are tickets that probably would have never been written, so we’re really not taking away and revenue from the city,” Rinfret said.

Parking tickets must be reviewed in Somerville by sworn officers or designees. Scott acknowledged the potential need for dedicated staff, knowing the high volume of tickets that just two devices produced during the six-week pilot.

The city’s Law Department would need to be consulted on how to designate people for the job, Rinfret said.