Eye on Islanders, mystery traffic cameras

By Ruth Longoria

Who was watching and why? Island drivers observed strategically placed cameras set up to observe traffic. It was a disconcerting discovery. The cameras were moved from place to place. Mysterious vans, people in parked cars watching intersections -- and at first, the police did not who was behind the devices.

The mystery is now solved in the case of the suspicious surveillance cameras. Video cameras set up on poles at intersections near Island schools had some school bus drivers concerned recently. But, it turns out, the cameras had nothing to do with recently televised reports of speeding bus drivers.

At first, it wasn't clear where the cameras came from, and phone calls to the city did not yield any concrete answers. Public Safety Director Ron Elsoe told the Reporter then, he had no idea who set up the cameras, or why. Island school bus driver Bob Bersos first saw a amera perched on a pole at an Island intersection near one of the schools about a month ago.

``I was curious, it looked like some sort of surveillance camera,'' Bersos said.

Then, on Nov. 18, an e-mail from the office of the Superintendent of Public Administration, in Olympia. Allan J. Jones, the director of public transportation and traffic safety education, told school district officials that cameras had been set up in various locations in some districts as part of a sting operation conducted by a television station. The sting aimed to catch speeding drivers in school zones. Although one district (not Mercer Island) was found to have 17 school bus drivers exceeding the speed limit, that district had already been taken to task, Jones wrote.

``At this point, my concern is that the TV station will go to another district and find similar behavior,'' Jones warned.

Soon after that, the same station reported that drivers in the Edmonds school district had been observed driving too fast. The television station had used a radar gun to gauge speeds. Surprisingly, Edmonds law enforcement patrol cars also were caught at inappropriate speeds, the report said.

So, bus drivers on the Island breathed a sigh of relief -- the cameras were gone and, after all, our drivers weren't the ones in violation.

But then last week, cameras were put up again. And they didn't just stay in one location. Bersos took pictures of the camera he saw at about 10 a.m. at the intersection of 80th Avenue S.E. and S.E. 40th Street. When he went back to that spot a few hours later, the camera was gone. Then, another driver told him, the camera was seen being put up by the driver of an unmarked van at the intersection of 86th Avenue and S.E. 42nd Street.

``It was really strange,'' Bersos said.

The cameras became even more of a mystery when the Reporter contacted the television station.

``I'm unaware of anything we've done on Mercer Island, and I'd be aware if we were there,'' the reporter said Friday. ``There may be some paranoia after we did the study in Edmonds. But that's a good thing,'' he said, adding that it might make drivers slow their driving habits. ``If we keep kids even a little safer, that's great,'' he said.

A phone call to Elsoe on Friday appears to have solved the mystery. The cameras are part of a traffic study being conducted in connection with the Boys and Girls Club's PEAK plans, Elsoe explained.

The study is required by the city, but is not being conducted by the city, said Nancy Fairchild, transportation planner for the development services department at the city. The Boys and Girls Club hired a traffic consultant to collect data using video cameras and people sitting in cars counting left turn movement, as well as through other methods of collection, Fairchild said.

Bersos said he's glad to finally know what was up with the cameras. ``It does make sense that they were doing a traffic study, but it just seemed so strange they were up for such short times and then they were gone again,'' he said. ``It was really bizarre.''

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