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Judge rules red light camera referendum was invalid

Boom.

A Houston federal judge today invalidated last November’s referendum that ended the red-light camera program, a ruling that has sent city leaders back to square one.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled the city can not reverse an ordinance except by a referendum of voters held within 30 days of the passage of the ordinance. Opponents to the red light camera ordinance, which passed in 2004, mounted the last year challenge as an amendment to the city charter but Hughes said it was essentially the same thing.

“Presented with this mislabeling, the council supinely ignored — over voices of some of its members — their responsibility and put the proposition to the voters,’’ Hughes ruled.

City Attorney David Feldman said he would discuss the city’s options with Mayor Annise Parker and the city council, but acknowledged one possibility was to restore the camera system.

“We lost on the issue of the validity of the charter amendment, so what the court is saying, okay city, now decide what you’re going to do with the contract,” Feldman said. “We need to decide how we’re going to move forward, and what position we’re going to take with the contract in light of the fact he’s declared the charter amendment invalid.’’

Mayor Annise Parker said the federal ruling will be discussed.

You can see the Mayor’s statement here, a copy of Judge Hughes’ summary judgment is here, and a copy of the order here. I’m not a fan of overturning elections by lawsuit, so despite my preference in that election I’m not a fan of this ruling. I know it’s Not The Way Things Are Done, but I still believe we’d all be better off today if this issue had been settled before anyone had voted. As we saw in previous discussions of the referendum, there were legitimate questions about its legality. There was also an alternate path for the opponents to follow, one that would have required more signatures but not a huge amount more. Judge Hughes clearly agreed with CM Anne Clutterbuck, who argued forcefully but unsuccessfully that Council should have voted against putting this on the ballot. Too late for that now.

What this is now is a political question. In the aftermath of the referendum, city officials said they would cease collecting camera revenues even if a judge eventually ruled that the election was invalid. It’s too early to say whether they will stick to that or seek out some wiggle room now that the ruling is a reality. Given the budget situation, and the fact that a significant number of Council members agreed with CM Clutterbuck at the time, it’s easy to envision the cameras getting re-enabled, at which point the remedy for any angry opponents would be to take Judge’s Hughes’ advice and vote them out. Stay tuned.

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10 Comments

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    Typical Lynn Hughes arrogance. With all due respect, your honor, you’re saying you can decide without an evidentiary hearing that it’s a referendum and not a charter amendment? You’re saying there is no question of fact on this point and you can summarily simply find “it’s a referendum?”

    I loved this gem: “The Founders’ definition of tyranny was arbitrary government. Timid
    or over-enthusiastic city officials can destroy regular government as easily as a king.”

    Seems to me that “regular government” is being destroyed by an unelected dictator for life who rules by fiat rather than actual evidence.

  2. JJ says:

    It was clearly a referendum. It targeted the overturning of a single ordinance. That is exactly what a referendum is for. It should be a narrowly construed and used tool, because we have a representative form of government and the way for the people to act is through their representatives, not through having a vote on each and every ordinance. Otherwise we would have a direct form of government. And while there wasn’t an evidentiary hearing, there were briefs that covered things like how many times in the past a specific ordinance was overturned by a charter amendment — zero — and how many times by referendum — once in 1994 or so, the sexual orientation non-discrimination ordinance that was swiftly the subject of a petition and election to overturn it.

    If there is a single federal judge who is hostile to government and would love to see the people having more of a direct say and overturning what government officials do, it is Lynn Hughes. That he set aside his predilections in making this ruling speaks volumes. I also feel certain that he personally voted against the red light cameras.

  3. JJ says:

    Revisiting the old reports, it strikes me how the judge has clearly ruled that the Mayor and the City Attorney were just dead wrong on their reading of the law: their quotes from last summer/fall say the exact opposite of what today’s ruling says. Some people at the time told me that they thought that the Mayor’s position was purely playing politics, ignoring the rules and the law because she decided that it was good strategic positioning to “let the people have their say”, and thus she ordered Feldman to give the opinion that he did, and then she was going to rely on ATF to spend the money to win at the ballot box. (She just didn’t count on how much African-Americans hate the police department.) At the time, someone gave me a recent decision from a College Station area state court that addressed these issues, and I wondered “why is he ignoring this precedent?” I guess Feldman is the Mayor’s lawyer (she’s his client) and just argues whatever side she orders him to, but I wish the City Attorney had a more independent role.

  4. byron schirmbeck says:

    So if the powers that be commit political suicide and turns the cameras back on they will be faced with a different type of initiative and another vote. And knowing ATS another election challenge, millions on TV ads to re litigate the issue in the court of public opinion and more post election challenges which they city might very well lose again. Or they could negotiate a reduced settlement with ATS and spare themselves and the expense of another election. I am surprised that other otpions are not being explored. The council can turn the cameras on but put more restrictions on the camera program to reduce the amount of tickets. Reducing the number of officers reviewing citations, extending the yellow light by a second, not issuing rolling right on red citations and the revenue will drop down to such a point that ATS will be wanting to get out of town, no breach of contract, no new election none of those problems. Also surprised that no one is talking about the HUGE black eye ATS was given by the Judge. ATS argued that “safety” programs like cameras are outside of the scope of the initiative and referendum process. The judge said not so. This means a future vote in Houston that should pass a challenge and any other city that wants to have a vote will not have to face that argument. That is HUGE news as several camera cities do not have a 30 day provision for referendums. There will be several more camera votes in the near future as several of these small towns only need 3-500 signatures for referendums.

  5. Garwood says:

    Good points, Byron. A difficult position for all parties to be in.

    On another tack, I find it interesting that the anti-drainage fee crowd wants a “do over” because the voters didn’t know what they were voting for, most specifically how much it would cost, but I don’t see any of that crowd stepping up and saying “wait a minutes, the anti-red light camera people didn’t tell us this would cost the City $10 million a year in revenue and we have to pay ATF $30 million for terminating the contact without cause — we need a re-vote on that as well.”

    But, sadly, the black community is so anti-police that those precincts voted sometimes 70%+ against the red light cameras (while many Anglo precincts favored them, but not by near the margins, and I think the perpetually anti-City voters in Kingwood and Clear Lake continued to be against everything the City proposes), so I am doubtful that the outcome would be any different a 2nd time.

  6. Ron in Houston says:

    Byron – you’re a genius. If we want to get rid of this money grabbing scheme – we need to take the profit out of it.

  7. […] said before that what happens next with the red light camera ruling is a political decision. Here’s how […]

  8. Memorial Momma says:

    The decision appears to be one that even I could understand, and I’m curious about “what’s next?”

    Can the Council truly justify paying off the contract, leaving the cameras off, and laying off even more police/fire/utility workers? Is that the option we’re facing?

    Or, do the cameras come back on and we simply grumble about it; until perhaps another city council decides to pay off the contract?

    Talk about two horrible options.

    Byron – you’re the Baytown guy right? What do you think is the effect of this on your city’s situation?

  9. byron schirmbeck says:

    There is no need to lay anyone off if the city has to get out of the contract. The camera revenue was only supposed to go towards traffic safety programs, not the general fund. There is still a lot of money left in the camera fund right now, the city could use that money to pay ATS by saying traffic safety means getting rid of the cameras. I am the Baytown guy. We have a different case, we have a more favorable venue in district court with an elected judge, our case was put off until October so I don’t think the judge really wants to touch this issue. We did an initiative to restrict the camera use, we didn’t say they had to go away. ATS turned off the cameras in Baytown not the city. And our ordinance was changed by the council so in effect, our ordinance doesn’t exist, it is the council’s ordinance. ATS can’t sue to block a legislative body from enacting their own legislation. Plus most of ATS’ argument that we can’t vote on items such as this was thrown out by the judge. People can keep up with the most recent events on this issue for all over Texas at http://www.citizensforsaferstreets.com