Correction: The original article incorrectly stated that engineer Robert F. Rennebaum sealed plans for Wilmington; he sealed plans for Greenville. Both cities use red-light cameras operated by American Traffic Solutions; Wilmington’s systems were found to have been installed in violation of state law last year and have not yet been brought into compliance, although city staff say the process is ‘ongoing.’
WILMINGTON — Six months after issuing a reprimand and levying a fine, North Carolina’s engineering board has suspended the license of the engineer who unlawfully sealed plans for Greenville red light cameras operated by American Traffic Solutions, the same company used by Wilmington.
Last years, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (NCBELS) notified Wilmington and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) that the city’s 13 red-light camera installations constituted ‘engineering practices,’ and ATS was not licensed in the state of North Carolina to provide such a service.
In Wilmington, 12 of the 13 red-light camera installation plans were unsealed and listed ATS as the engineer, one listed ATS employee Robert B. Zaitooni; neither ATS or Zaitooni have ever been licensed to perform engineering in North Carolina. And, while the City of Wilmington initially stated that engineering seals weren’t required for the camera installation, NCBELS ruled that wasn’t true, which means the cameras were installed in violation of state law.
NCBELS also investigated Robert F. Rennebaum, a licensed engineer hired to sign the ATS plans in Greenville; the board found that Rennebaum didn’t work for ATS and didn’t himself supervise the creation of the plans, which made it a violation of state law. NCBELS issued a formal reprimand, a $5,000 fine, and ordered Rennebaum to complete an ethics course within six months.
The deadline passed in late November 2019; Rennebaum did not provide NCBELS with proof that he had taken the course, and the board suspended his license effective November 29, 2019.
Toothless regulations mean no penalties for ATS
Like the rest of North Carolina’s industry boards, NCBELS has no enforcement power. That means that, as Executive Director Andrew Ritter put it in May 2019, “all we can do is determine whether or not a service provided by a company can be considered engineering.”
Complicating this is the fact that NCBELS only has jurisdiction over licensed engineers and companies. While NCBELS can fine — and strip licenses from — violators like Rennebaum, American Traffic Solutions isn’t licensed in North Carolina, so there’s no license to strip.
Ritter said NCBELS has informed a special counsel at the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, but so far no action has been taken. Ritter said NCBELS has repeatedly asked the General Assembly for its own enforcement powers, but have been routinely rebuffed. NCBELS isn’t alone, Ritter added, pointing to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that squashed the North Carolina Dental Board of Examiners attempts to regulate unlicensed teeth whitening businesses.
In a further bureaucratic twist, NCBELS can’t even say ATS is breaking the law.
Here’s why: (1) Practicing engineering without a license is a crime. (2) NCBELS found that ATS was practicing engineering. (3) NCBELS confirmed ATS is not licensed in North Carolina. (4) While it might be reasonable to conclude that ATS is breaking the law, NCBELS is not allowed by statute to reach such a conclusion. Only the state Attorney General’s office can do that. (5) While NCBELS has notified the AG’s office, so far it appears no action has been taken.
Status quo for Wilmington
After NCBELS notified Wilmington of this situation last year, the city approved extended ATS’s contract; however, whereas in previous years extensions had been passed without discussion on the council’s consent agenda, in September the issue was actually brought up for public comment.
City Attorney John Joye dismissed concerns about the red-light camera’s legality — arguing that complaints came from people who were “unhappy” that they’d received citations — but did not answer the question, raised by Councilman Clifford Barnett, about whether or not the city could face liability in a lawsuit. The city attorney did note that if ATS did not correct the plans by the end of this contract (that is, in September of 2020) he would not support a new contract.
Joye and Deputy City Attorney Meredith Everhart have both noted that the actual timing mechanisms of the camera’s operation and the mechanisms by which vehicles are identified and civil fines are sent out are not part of the engineering ATS illegally provided. Still, if the cameras were installed illegally in 2009, it is possible that anyone who received a citation since then might have a case, especially since it was only recently that NCBELS provided the finding that demonstrates how state law was violated.
City officials say the process of bringing the red-light camera installations into compliance is “ongoing.”
According to Don Bennett, the city’s traffic engineer, “[w]hen the original determination was rendered by the NCBELS regarding the ATS plans in NC, ATS was notified by City staff that they needed to secure a firm or individual to review and provide certified documentation that the plans were adequate by engineering standards. We understand that process is ongoing, and we expect resolution before any contract renewal would be considered. “
Below: NCBELS initial reprimand for Rennebaum and the board’s follow-up decision to suspend his license.
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