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Council agrees to red light camera settlement

At long last.

Gone

City Council approved a payout of at least $4.8 million Wednesday to settle a lawsuit and take down Houston’s controversial red-light cameras, finally ending a legal battle that began after voters banned the devices in a referendum 15 months ago.

The cameras were turned off and outlawed by council in August but have remained mounted at 50 intersections while the city’s camera vendor pursued breach of contract claims in federal court.

The settlement calls for the cameras to be taken down within 60 days.

[...]

Council members C.O. Bradford, Helena Brown, Jack Christie and Mike Sullivan voted against the settlement.

The city has about $3 million in hand from fines paid by red-light violators. It is counting on future collections to raise the rest of the money within three years.

“The people who are going to pay the money are not the innocent taxpayers. It’s going to be the red-light runners,” said Andy Taylor, an attorney for ATS.

If the city cannot collect enough money from violators, it must cover the shortfall with general fund money that pays police officers and firefighters. Christie said he could not support a deal backed with general fund money.

“I would not give my house as collateral, and that’s what we’re doing,” Christie said.

“I do not believe that we will touch general funds, but it is part of the settlement package,” Mayor Annise Parker said.

See here for previous discussion. Basically, it’s up to the efforts of the fine collectors to ensure that the city doesn’t end up using general fund revenue. Note that the Accounts Receivable report that I blogged about the other day doesn’t discuss red light camera fines, which makes sense since those are aimed for that escrow account.

The other issue in all this was the dismissal of the lawsuit, originally brought by the city to determine its liability, in which the referendum election on the cameras was declared by federal judge Lynn Hughes to have been illegal. Camera opponents did not want the suit to be dismissed.

Hughes last June declared the election invalid because the petition signatures to repeal the camera ordinance were not submitted as required within a month of the ordinance’s passage in 2005. The Kuboshes’ attorney, David Furlow, asked Hughes to keep the case open to litigate the question of the election’s legality or to simply admit he was wrong last June and reverse his ruling as part of the case’s dismissal.

Dismissing the case throws out the ruling that the election was invalid. So Hughes questioned why the Kuboshes want to debate what would be a moot point. Their time and resources are better spent fighting against a live transgression, he hinted.

“Why don’t you wait until the city does something crazy?” Hughes asked. “It won’t be long.”

The problem, Furlow said after the hearing, is that the ruling that the election is invalid, even if thrown out in a dismissal, is there for other cities in the future to build a case if they want to throw out the will of the voters. Getting Hughes to say he was wrong is the closest thing the Kuboshes can get to putting the genie back in the bottle, or as American Traffic Solutions attorney Andy Taylor put it, to “unpop the popcorn.”

Taylor said that if the case is dismissed and the settlement is approved, everybody wins: the cameras get taken down, the lawsuit ends, the settlement is paid by red-light runners and the ruling that the election was invalid is declared moot.

But in that case, ATS really wins, Furlow said, because it gets the money and the unrefuted ruling that the election to oust ATS was illegal.

“They want to set a scalp on a lodgepole so they can scare anyone else who might challenge their red-light camera contracts,” Furlow said after the hearing.

According to the story, the Kuboshes are deciding whether to appeal the dismissal, so in that sense this still isn’t over. As I said before, if we want to fight about the issue of how long you have to repeal an ordinance by referendum, we should do that by amending the charter. I don’t think they’ll get anywhere in court on this, but as always with judges, you never know.

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3 Comments

  1. funny thing is by using the red light camera fund to pay to get rid of the cameras the city and ATS are essentially admitting the cameras were a public danger, remember how they kept telling us how the city can only use their portion of the profits on certain projects? Texas Transportation Code 707 says the local authority shall; “deposit the remainder of the revenue in a special account in the local authority’s treasury that may be used only to fund traffic safety programs, including pedestrian safety programs, public safety programs, intersection improvements, and traffic enforcement.” http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/docs/tn/htm/tn.707.htm

    I don’t see where it says, “pay off a contract to camera vendors” is a legal use of the restricted funds. So unless the city wants to say they are breaking the law then removing the cameras would have to be a decision to promote public safety or enforce traffic laws.

    And what about the proposition actually being in the city charter? I seem to recall Mr Taylor pointing out how the proposition is actually on the city charter. The proposition forbids the city from COLLECTING red light camera fines. Is the city going to deliberatley violate the charter or are they resigned to the fact that they probably won’t be able to collect on these old fines? Lots of unanswered questions here.

  2. Ross says:

    Blame Bill White for this. He reigned over removing the clause in the contract that would have let the City get away for free if legislation or a charter change made the camera unviable.

    FWIW, I support the use of cameras for enforcement, but only if they system vendors get paid a set amount per camera to install and maintain them (preferably they are purchased byt hte City at a fixed price). The whole percentage of the take deal was abhorrent, and created the wrong motivations for everyone involved.

  3. joshua bullard says:

    ross-there you go again,coming up with these dreams that you have, ross what you need to do is volunteer with the city and ats to help get those damn things down and off city property and let the police get back to doing the job we already pay them to do.

    ross-lunch is on me,call me
    joshua ben bullard

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