Buckhannon Council debates plate reader

BUCKHANNON – The controversy over the Buckhannon Police Department’s use of a passive license plate reader raged on Thursday, as three separate votes were taken on the issue, resulting in the decision being tabled until August.

A lively debate ensued when Council began to discuss the use of the cameras by the Buckhannon City Police. Councilman Ron Pugh, who said he asked for the item to be placed on the agenda, made a motion to have the police “remove the reader from cruisers until the Legislature or attorney general’s office gives direction on what to do with the information collected by the readers.” The motion was seconded by Councilwoman Mary Albaugh.

Pugh said his issue with the device was the way information collected was being stored. He said the city had no idea how it was being used and how long it would be stored. Pugh said the readers were originally designed by the FBI to be used during investigations. He said Homeland Security then began to use the devices to track and store information.

“I don’t think that (removing the device) is permitted in our agreement, ” Councilman Thomas O’Neill said.

O’Neill added that every court of record that has had the issue arise has found it does not violate any rights. He noted Council had already passed a resolution to have the West Virginia Municipal League take the issue to the West Virginia Legislature.

“I think we should give the resolution time to work,” O’Neill said. “We are talking about one mobile unit that the police department has said is a viable tool.”

He also said the West Virginia State Police or the Upshur County Sheriff”s Office could begin using a license plate reader within the city limits and that Council could do nothing to prevent it.”

After listening to O’Neill’s comments, Albaugh said she was “pulling” her second from the motion.

“We are not guaranteed the Legislature will even consider it,” Pugh said.

City Recorder Rick Edwards then seconded Pugh’s original motion to remove the reader from cruisers.

“I have debated this thing over and over,” Councilman David Thomas said. “When this was brought to us, it seemed to have good intentions, but I have some issues with this. I have a problem with technology going through the town and collecting data. I have a problem with where the data is being stored. Who knows if the municipal league can do anything about it?”

Mayor Kenny Davidson explained the reader is programmed to recognize license plates and only take an image of the plate.

“You may see the car or someone that is standing there if the reader is far away,” he said.

He added the GPS location, the picture of the license plate and the plate number are then transferred to the Fusion Center, which gave the equipment to the city. He said no personal information is stored.

Buckhannon Police Department Lt. Doug Loudin was asked if the reader was beneficial to the department.

“I don’t know the exact statistics, but there is a lot of cars coming through the city of Buckhannon,” Loudin said. “Last year, seven vehicles were stolen in the city. If we had known they were stolen and had the plate reader, we could have recovered them before they were damaged.”

He said the reader would also be beneficial in the event of an Amber Alert being issued. Loudin also explained the reader was given to the city by the Fusion Center and the Buckhannon Department is the only force in Upshur County equipped with the device.

Pugh said he had no issue with the reader being used in the event of “BOLOs (be on the look out)” for vehicles, but he did have an issue with the storage of the data.

“It has nothing to do with the investigation aspects, it is about collecting and storing the information,” he said.

O’Neill called the matter to question and a roll call vote. O’Neill, Davidson and Albaugh voted against removing the reader, while Pugh, Edwards and Pam Cuppari voted for the measure. Thomas abstained from voting, but Davidson, as mayor and the chairman of the meeting, said abstaining was the same as a yes vote.

“This is terrible,” Davidson said after the vote was taken.

The motion carried, meaning the reader was to be removed, but the issue returned later in the meeting.

After council moved to the next section of their agenda “Comments and Announcements,” O’Neill returned the issue to the forefront.

“I am concerned about the vote taken tonight,” he said. “We are in violation of the agreement we signed. I think we are going to have to bear some cost for this action.”

He then made a motion to reconsider the earlier vote, which was seconded by Albaugh.

“I think we acted without a full realization of the costs,” he said. “I urge we reconsider.”

Davidson said if the equipment was removed the city would lose it entirely.

“We are reconsidering this,” he said.

A roll call vote was then taken to reconsider the motion, with only Edwards and Pugh voting against it.

Pugh again reiterated that he would not have an issue with the reader if it was only used for BOLO situations. He said during the city’s previous meeting not one person from the community came and spoke in favor of the reader.

“We didn’t have one person come to our public meetings that wanted this,” he said.

Thomas then made a motion to table the matter until council’s Aug. 21 meeting. He said he would like to have more time to do research on the reader to make a better decision. The motion to table was seconded by O’Neill.

“At that meeting we are going to put this to bed,” Davidson said after the motion to table was passed. No roll call vote was requested and the mayor said the majority of the votes were in favor of tabling the measure.