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Keep Houston Safe

What now for the red light cameras?

Barring anything unusual, red light cameras will be history in Houston, but their effect will be felt for some time.

City Controller Ronald Green said the loss of the devices would amount to a $10 million shortfall in revenues, a sharp decrease that would greatly complicate efforts to close a shortfall that was already nearing $80 million.

“We’re going to have to cut expenses,” he said. “We need to really start talking about the fact that furloughs and layoffs may really be a potential option. … It’s now time for drastic cuts.”

I don’t care to re-litigate the talking point about the cameras being a “revenue grab” – no one’s mind will be changed at this point – but however you felt about them they were a revenue source, and the loss of that revenue has to be made up somehow. I’m not looking forward to seeing how that happens.

Jim McGrath, a spokesman for Keep Houston Safe, said he did not anticipate that the political action committee — backed by the Arizona-based company that runs the city’s red-light camera program – would try to fight the election results in court.

“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We put together an unprecedented coalition of police and firefighters and hospital groups who told the truth. … At the end of the day, the voters got the last word.”

There was litigation filed before the election to prevent the referendum from being on the ballot, as well as questions about the legality of the petition effort. I could not tell from the story where any of that stood, so I sent an email to McGrath to ask. He said that his understanding was that the case had been vacated, and that as of Tuesday night no one had any intention of challenging the result. A statement released by the camera vendor doesn’t give any indication of further action, either. Personally, I’m not sure that the matter should be dropped. I feel like the legal issues that were raised by KHS and by Council members like Anne Clutterbuck deserve some kind of official answer in the event this sort of thing ever happens again. But I understand why no one wants to pursue it. Like it or not, the election was won fair and square, and you have to respect that.

I have to wonder, though, if throwing in a few negative ads with all those “firefighters and doctors telling the truth” might have had an effect on the outcome. McGrath and company weren’t shy about questioning the Kubosh brothers’ financial motives for opposing the cameras to reporters. Given what Controller Green says, it’s not hard to imagine an attack mailer in which said financial interests of “greedy lawyers” are pitched against those of Houston’s taxpayers. “They want to line their pockets while costing you money!” or some such could have been the tag line. It would have been sleazy and hypocritical, of course, and would have drawn the usual tongue-clucking from various media types – yeah, me too – but I bet it would have moved a few votes.

That’s just Wednesday morning quarterbacking, and it’s easy for me to say. A better question is what happens to the cameras now, and what happens if you get a ticket from one before they come down? My guess is that the status quo will remain until Council takes some action to begin the process of removing them. The city could have them turned off immediately, but I don’t think they are required to do so. As long as there’s some sort of good faith, on a reasonable schedule effort to get rid of them, I suspect that would be considered kosher by a judge. So don’t go running any more lights than you would have before.

UPDATE: And here we get some answers.

Although voters abolished Houston’s red light camera system Tuesday, the 70 cameras have the green light to keep recording traffic violations for months as the city weighs a legal strategy for exiting its contract with the firm operating the cameras, city officials say.

Anti-camera activists slammed the delay Wednesday, insisting on immediately terminating the five-year contract — whatever the cost – with ATS, the Arizona firm that manages Houston’s system. The May 2009 contract has a termination clause that requires the city to provide the company with a 120-day notice of cancellation, a period when the cameras will still be in full operation and civil fines issued, according to the city attorney.

“This issue is over, “ said attorney Paul Kubosh, who with brother Michael helped mount the successful campaign against the cameras. “This is not a legal issue, this is a political issue now. The voters don’t care what the price of tea is in China. They don’t care what the contract says. … They want the cameras gone and just pay the damages.“

Apparently, we’re all Veruca Salt now. This just confirms my belief that perhaps the campaign for the cameras should have talked a bit about the costs involved in being forced to remove them.

Chron story on lawsuit against red light camera referendum

The Chron covers the story.

Boosters of Houston’s 70 red-light cameras are seeking to prevent a November vote on whether to ban the devices, alleging in a federal lawsuit that the initiative was placed on the ballot illegally and that it could violate the Voting Rights Act.

[…]

“This complaint needed to have been brought way back in 2004,” said Chris Begala, a spokesman for Keep Houston Safe, the political action committee opposing the ballot initiative. “If this is, indeed, an untimely, illegal referendum, we need to know that, and the city needs to know that. … All options have to be addressed.”

[…]

Paul Kubosh, a founder of Citizens Against Red Light Cameras who makes a living as a lawyer representing motorists accused of traffic violations, questioned how pro-camera forces could argue the petition may dilute minority voting. “How is this a violation of the Voting Rights Act?” he asked.

Kubosh noted that the PAC claims its internal polls show strong voter support for the cameras. “If they have such good polling, why do they want to block the vote?”

Mary Benton had the scoop on this last week. The point about whether the referendum is illegal according to the city charter has been discussed in detail, and I don’t have anything to add to that. Beyond that, I’ve taken plenty of potshots at Paul Kubosh throughout this saga, but I can’t disagree with either of the things he says here. We’ll see what the court has to say – the story doesn’t indicate if or when a hearing has been scheduled; you’d think it would have to be soon – and go from there.

Red light camera petitions certified

They made it just under the wire.

A petition to ban red light cameras in Houston has been certified by the city secretary, making it all but certain that voters will decide in November whether the 70 devices at intersections across the city will be taken down.

“This is a great day for Houston,” said Michael Kubosh, one of three brothers that collected more than 20,000 signatures required to get the proposed charter amendment on the ballot in this election cycle. “People just need a right to vote, that’s all we’re saying. Now the citizens will have a chance to decide.”

Jim McGrath, a spokesman for Keep Houston Safe, a political action committee advocating the cameras, said the petition is illegal and represents an abuse of the city charter amendment process. He noted that Paul Kubosh, another brother behind the petition, is a lawyer who specializes in defending traffic ticket recipients and has a business interest in the outcome of the election.

As you know, I’m not terribly impressed by the anti-camera arguments, certainly not by the “it’s all about the money!” arguments. Nobody ever has to get a red light camera ticket, and I say that as someone who has received an old-fashioned police-issued ticket for running a red light. Having said that, I’m also not terribly impressed by the argument that killing the cameras is in Paul Kubosh’s financial interest. I mean, let’s be real here – the camera company is going to spend a bunch of money to win this election because it’s in their financial interest to do so. Nobody is pure on that score, so let’s acknowledge it and move on. If you want to question the Kubosh brothers’ motives, I prefer noting that neither one is registered to vote in the city of Houston, and therefore neither one can actually cast a ballot on this referendum.

Assuming there is a referendum. As CultureMap notes, expect legal action by Keep Houston Safe to follow.

“We’ve got two key legal issues here and if the city was to bow to political pressure to go against that, we would take action,” Keep Houston Safe spokesman Jim McGrath told CultureMap.

KHS claims that the ban qualifies as a referendum election to ban or repeal a city ordinance, which according to law must have petitions completed within 30 days of enacting that law. Since the red light cameras have been in operation since 2006, McGrath says that to bring it forward now would constitute an illegal referendum.

That argument was echoed on Council.

“To me, this is an illegal election petition,” Council Member Anne Clutterbuck said. “This is not a referendum. This is a charter amendment which is, in my opinion, not the proper way to go forward.”

I’ve said before that I’m not convinced by that argument, either, but that’s why God gave us lawyers, to sort out this sort of thing. We’ll see what happens.

Assuming we do have a referendum on the ballot, I will be very interested to see who takes what side. This isn’t an R/D issue, and I expect there will be supporters and opponents on both sides. (Mary Benton lists ten supporters on Council.) The question will be who takes some kind of action one way or the other, and who sits it out. Also of interest will be who raises and spends how much. I don’t know about you, but I’m already prepared to be sick of the commercials that are sure to run. Maybe this won’t be that expensive a campaign, but I wouldn’t count on that.