Updated at: 07/19/2013 12:35 PM
By RYAN J. FOLEY
(AP) IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has ordered transportation officials to cut the number of special license plates issued to government vehicles that exempt them from some traffic cameras.
Branstad said Thursday it was unacceptable that 3,218 plates given to local, state and federal agencies have a designation that keeps them out of computer databases. Cities with red light and speed cameras say that makes them impractical to identify for tickets that would cost ordinary drivers $75 to $200.
The plates are meant to shield employees conducting undercover or sensitive work by making it hard for anyone to query their license plates, but the governor questioned whether they were always justified.
"When the review concludes, the amount of unidentified plates should be restricted to those only absolutely necessary," he said.
Branstad also requested a review of broader issues, including how many tickets the cameras have issued, how many other violations were captured but not pursued and how much money the violations generate for cities and contractors.
The order came days after The Associated Press reported on Iowa Department of Transportation data showing that more than 350 government agencies had been issued such plates. While police forces received most of them, the amount issued and used by a wide array of other agencies raised questions and generated some backlash.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources had been issued 210 such plates, which a spokesman said are used by game wardens and conservation officers. The Iowa Lottery (48), Broadlawns Medical Center (14), and the Transportation Security Administration (15) were among the other recipients.
Some critics of traffic cameras used the news to argue that selective enforcement is unfair, and applauded Branstad’s review.
"Certainly it is wrong when our government is treated differently than the citizens that are out there," said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who is sponsoring a bill to ban the cameras. "Good for him."
DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry said the review would look for ways to improve its handling of requests for the plates. Its longstanding practice has been to issue them to any government that asks.
"We assume they know best which plates they need. The way the system is right now we don’t have any review as far as why they are requesting those plates," she said.
Many are likely no longer in use because agencies aren’t required to inform the DOT when they stop needing them, she said.
But it’s not clear whether all of the requests should have been made or granted.
Iowa law requires government vehicles to have plates marked "official," but gives DOT discretion to issue undercover plates to some workers _ such as law enforcement officials, narcotics agents, tax collectors, lottery workers who carry tickets, economic development officials, and some health care professionals.
The special plates issue surfaced after an April 26 speeding incident involving Branstad’s SUV, which has the undercover designation. Troopers who responded to a report of the SUV doing 90 mph had dispatchers run the plate, which came back "not on file." The pursuit continued for miles until a trooper caught up, identified the SUV as Branstad’s and let it go.
Cities with traffic cameras, such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, acknowledged they don’t track down vehicles that come back as "not on file." In addition to government officials with the special plates, "not on file" vehicles could include those that do not match their plates or newly purchased cars that haven’t been entered into the system.
"If the governor’s SUV came through here, we wouldn’t have any way of knowing that’s the governor’s SUV," said Sgt. William Melville of Sioux City, where 40,000 speed and red light tickets were issued last year. "Is it a computer glitch? Is it the person didn’t register the car properly? Is it being withheld deliberately by the DOT? We don’t have a way of knowing that."
Cities can check with the DOT about which agency a specific government vehicle belongs to, but generally don’t take that step.
Branstad said the review will look at the plates for the black Chevy Tahoe that troopers use to drive him around Iowa. He noted that when he was governor from 1982 to 1998, his vehicle was easily identifiable: a Lincoln Town Car with the license plate "1." After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, state officials decided to use an undercover plate to protect the governor.
He said the DOT would consult with law enforcement to determine which plates should remain undercover.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)