FREMONT -- Saying they support installing surveillance cameras around the city to fight crime, City Council members have postponed voting on the issue because of concerns about paying for them with federal housing grants intended to help the poor.
Police were asking the council Tuesday to reallocate $161,375 in Community Development Block Grant funds -- earmarked for low- to moderate-income communities -- to install as many as 20 digital video cameras on streetlights and public buildings.
"I don't have a problem with the camera program ... it's not an invasion of privacy," Councilman Vinnie Bacon said. "The linking of the two (the program and the federal housing funds) is where I have the problem."
Three residents spoke at the meeting to oppose installing the cameras, saying the city was giving up civil liberties in exchange for a sense of security.
"It's horrible idea, I strongly object to this," said Bill Spicer, a longtime Fremont resident. "I expect my city government to protect what little privacy we have left, at least on a local level."
The grant, which typically is used to provide housing, jobs and services for people below the poverty line, became available because the affordable housing developer that originally received the money decided to delay using it.
Bacon said the cameras are a legal and effective crime-fighting tool, but balked at using the grant funds because they are supposed to help the impoverished and "this is not the best way to fund solutions" for those communities.
After Vice Mayor Anu Natarajan and Councilwoman Sue Chan raised similar concerns about the funding, City Manager Fred Diaz suggested that all parties revisit the issue in February, when they could use midyear budget projections to identify other money sources. The council voted unanimously to wait a few months before reconsidering the item.
"I would like to have privacy concerns vetted," Natarajan said when asked about the cameras on Wednesday. "But last night wasn't the forum to talk about that specific issue."
Police Chief Richard Lucero said that he will use the extra time to research "protocols and specifics" on how the camera program could be implemented while trying to strike a balance between enforcing the law enforcement and respecting residents' privacy.
Another speaker, Lorna Jaynes, said the cameras will negatively affect her sense of freedom.
"I love my neighborhood and the feeling I get from walking through it," said Jaynes, a Niles resident. "So, it makes my skin crawl to know I'll be spied upon while doing so."
Jaynes and Spicer complained that the city should have done more public outreach on an issue as controversial as surveillance cameras, which has generated heated debate in cities across the country.
"If this was a tattoo parlor or a development, we'd receive notice about it and there'd be an opportunity for public discussion," Jaynes said. "This was the antithesis of that. It was buried deep in the agenda packet, so there was no way for people to know about it. I think that's an outrage."
Nadine Nader, deputy city manager, said the meeting agenda was available online for more than three days before the meeting and that the city always complies with state public noticing laws. "This was just for the reallocation of the funds and discussion about the actual policy will be coming back to the council," Nader said. "That was always the intention -- to have the council have that full discussion at a public meeting."
In the coming months, Fremont plans to reach out to the community on the issue by using Twitter, Nixle and other regular communication tools, police spokeswoman Geneva Bosques said. "Once we have the proposal drafted, and we're close to going to council, we also will host town hall-style meeting, where the public will be invited," she said.
Fremont, the Bay Area's fourth largest city, has a relatively low crime rate. Just two homicides were reported in each of the past two years, and the Business Insider website recently named it the nation's second safest city.
But burglaries remain a problem, even in wealthy areas. Fremont had around 1,200 home and commercial burglaries in each of the past two years, according to police statistics.
Residents in Scott Creek Terrace, a tony neighborhood near the Milpitas border, recently purchased a pair of high-tech cameras, which scan license plate numbers when motorists enter and exit the residential area.
Mylene Stolpe, a Scott Creek resident, said she supports placing surveillance cameras throughout the city because crime went down near her home after neighbors installed them.
"The more cameras we have, the better -- assuming they respect the privacy of everyone," she said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.