The city of Houston will turn its red-light cameras back on today, Mayor Annise Parker announced after this morning’s City Council meeting.
According to a statement from the mayor’s office, tickets will be issued after a “short period of equipment testing.”
Houston voters approved a referendum to turn off the cameras in November, but a federal judge ruled last month that it had been improperly placed on the ballot, rendering the results invalid. As a result, the city faced a choice to turn the cameras back on or canceling its contract with American Traffic Solutions, which could cost the city $16 million.
At the same time, Parker said, the city seek permission for an appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes in attempt to honor the will of the voters. Hughes ruled that the city charter requires that efforts to overturn an ordinance by referendum must occur within 30 days of an ordinance’s passage.
Red-light camera vendor ATS responded with a statement: “In accordance with Mayor Parker’s announcement, ATS is working to immediately reactivate and fully functionalize Houston’s red light safety cameras. We look forward to resuming work with the City on this important public safety initiative. As we have seen over the course of the last several years, Houston’s red light safety camera program has been successful in changing driver behavior, reducing collisions and ultimately saving lives.”
Here’s the full statement from Mayor Parker, courtesy of Mary Benton:
Mayor Annise Parker today announced that the City will attempt to appeal a recent court ruling invalidating last fall’s vote on red-light cameras. In the meantime, the red-light cameras will be turned back on today. Ticket issuance will resume after a short period of equipment testing.“This is a difficult decision,” said Mayor Parker. “I have a responsibility to represent the interests of the voters, but I also have a responsibility to abide by the judge’s ruling. The City just went through a very painful budget process in which nearly 750 employees were laid off and park, library and health services were cut back. We simply don’t have the millions they claim we would owe for violating the court decision and our contractual obligation to American Traffic Solutions (ATS). Therefore, I have decided the fiscally-prudent path to take is to turn the cameras back on while also seeking a second chance for the voters in the courts.”
Mayor Parker emphasized the safety measures provided by the red-light camera program. ATS and the City are initiating a study to make sure the cameras are placed at the city’s most dangerous intersections. As a result of this review, some cameras may be moved from their current locations to intersections with higher accident rates upon completion of this review.In June, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled last November’s red-light camera referendum violated the City Charter and should not have been placed on the ballot. The ruling was based on a charter provision that mandates any challenge of a city ordinance by referendum must occur within 30 days of passage of the ordinance. City Council adopted an ordinance initiating the use of red-light cameras in 2004. Opponents did not mount their ballot challenge until 2010.
The district court decision is an interlocutory ruling. As such, the City must first ask Judge Hughes for permission to appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Permission is also required from the appellate court.
“It is not the prerogative of City Council to decide which laws it wants to follow,” Parker said. “We had no choice in putting the referendum on the ballot last fall. However, we do have the ability to settle this question for future City Councils and the public.”
See here for the discussion of “interlocutory”. I will simply note that the judge’s ruling essentially contradicts the Mayor’s assertion that Council was compelled to put the referendum on the ballot. To do what the opponents wanted to do would have required a referendum, which was not done in the allotted time specified by the city’s charter. This was CM Clutterbuck’s argument at the time Council voted, but she did not carry the day.
Anyway. You can see the brief that the city filed in this Houston Politics post. Among other things, it notes that there were contractual questions that were not addressed in the original ruling, and that “Allowing the appellate courts to affirm or reverse the decision at this juncture is critical to determining the remaining contractual issues.” In other words, to seeing how much on the hook to ATS the city might be.
UPDATE: Changed “initiative” to “referendum” in the penultimate paragraph per JJ’s comment.