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.