Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Paul Kubosh

Lawsuit against anti-feeding ordinance dropped

From last week:

The plaintiffs suing the city of Houston over its charitable feeding ordinance have abruptly dropped a suit they filed over the issue, just hours after the judge in the case recused himself.

The ordinance, which requires property owners’ advance written permission for the charitable feeding of more than five people, was one of the most passionate issues debated at City Hall last year. City officials said the measure would help control litter associated with feedings of the homeless and allow for better coordination of such efforts. Opponents decried the ordinance as criminalizing charity.

Paul Kubosh, of the bailbondsmen Kubosh brothers who are reliable opponents of Mayor Annise Parker, was the plaintiff in the suit, filed in December, which alleged the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates the Kuboshes’ Constitutional rights. The Kuboshes religious beliefs, the suit states, encourage them to share food with the homeless in ways that violate the ordinance.

The Kuboshes collected 34,000 signatures on a petition that sought to overturn the requirement only on city-owned land, not on private property. The city said they had turned in the petition too late for it to be voted on last fall, a move the Kuboshes said was against the law.

Several preliminary motions had been filed in the case by both sides, but last Tuesday the issue took an odd turn when U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt recused himself from the case without offering a reason and, hours later, Kubosh’s attorney dismissed the suit.

Kubosh said he had to dismiss the case because the judge assigned to pick it up was U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, with whom the Kuboshes dealt in a similar episode in 2010 and 2011 in which they sought to intervene in a lawsuit related to the city’s red light cameras. The Kuboshes had led the ultimately successful charge to place the cameras on the ballot and have them rescinded.

“After litigating with the city in Judge Hughes’ court on things that deal with charter amendments and the people’s right to vote, I didn’t think it was in the citizens’ best interest, the people we’re trying to help, for us to continue in Judge Hughes’ court,” he said. “We couldn’t go back into that bear trap again. We’re not abandoning this, but we have to regroup.”

You may be saying to yourself “Wait, what lawsuit? I don’t remember a lawsuit being filed”. I didn’t remember one being filed, either, but it was filed just before Christmas.

The plaintiffs are members of Champions Forest Baptist Church and have given and shared food for free “with more than five people at a time on Houston public property” since about 2008.

According to the suit, the city passed the ordinance about six months ago and was not open to efforts to get it placed on the previous election’s ballot.

More than 34,000 people signed a petition in opposition of the ordinance, however, the city was not swayed, the original petition says.

The ordinance carries a jail sentence and a $200 fine for any violations.

The suit claims the ordinance is “unconstitutionally vague”, stating the term “those in need” has no clear definition and “in its broadest sense can refer to anyone.”

It additionally asserts that the complainants’ First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were infringed upon through the passing and implementation of the ordinance.

A jury trial is requested.

Attorney Randall L. Kallinen with the Law Office of Randall L. Kallinen PLLC in Houston is representing the plaintiffs.

The case number is 4:12-CV-3700, if you want to look it up. The only mainstream news coverage I found of this when I googled “Kubosh homeless lawsuit” was on KTRH. That and the timing of the suit is probably why you and I might not have heard of it before now. The last update I had in my blog was from August from when petition signatures were turned in to force a referendum on the ordinance. The problem was the timing – the ordinance had gone into effect on July 1, meaning the 30-day window for a repeal petition had passed, and on top of that the deadline for any item to be placed on the ballot was only a few days afterward, which gave the City Secretary very limited time to verify the signatures. This was the first I’d heard of anything relating to the ordinance since then.

Now as you know, in Judge Hughes’ ruling on the red light camera lawsuit, he wrote that that referendum should not have been on the ballot since it was an attempt to repeal an ordinance, which requires petitions to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance going into effect. However, the city settled with the camera company before a final ruling went into effect, so that question was not actually settled. I sent an email to Paul Kubosh to ask if this lawsuit intended to bring that matter up again, but he said “No, we filed the lawsuit to try and get the ordinance declared unconstitutional. I did not attempt to re-litigate the charter amendment issue in Federal Court.” I asked for a comment about the status of this lawsuit, and this is what he said:

“We chose to dismiss the case. However, the issue is not over. Currently, we have not gotten any word from the administration as to the status of the petition count. They are ignoring the petition. I still think I have the remedy of Mandamus to force the City Secretary to count the signatures. This ordinance will die. Its just a matter of time.”

So there you have it.

Petitions to overturn homeless feeding ordinance submitted

There’s plenty of signatures, but no guarantee that this will make it onto the ballot.

Activists seeking to repeal a new law requiring City Hall’s permission to serve charitable meals on city-owned land turned in 34,000 petition signatures on Monday asking that the issue be put to voters in November.

Despite the passion surrounding the issue from feeding groups, clergy and others who decried the ordinance as the criminalization of charity, City Attorney David Feldman said it was too late to get the issue on the ballot.

He said the deadline was July 1, the day the law went into effect.

Wrong, said Paul Kubosh, one of the petition drive’s organizers.

“This ordinance is dead. It’s just a matter of how hard and how much political capital will City Council spend to fight the people,” Kubosh said at a news conference in the City Hall rotunda.

The standoff sets the stage for a replay of the legal battle set off by the petition that called for the November 2010 election that outlawed the use of red-light cameras in Houston. Kubosh was also a key player in that battle.

In that case, the election went forward but a federal judge later invalidated it because the petition was turned in too late. However, the ruling is no longer in effect, with both sides claiming victory. Feldman says the legal principles embodied in the court ruling still apply, while attorney Randall Kallinen, who sides with Kubosh, says they don’t.

As noted before, if this becomes law it will leave in place the requirement that organizations get permission from private property owners before setting up a place to distribute food to homeless folks. Again, for all of the fuss over this, I don’t think that part of the ordinance was ever truly controversial. The question is whether permission is needed for doing so on city-owned property. I have no intention of re-litigating any of this, I’ll simply repeat my assertion that if this does get on the ballot, I believe it wins easily. The proponents have many times the energy, desire, and strength of opinion on this.

The question is whether or not it belongs on the ballot. The distinction Kubosh and Kallinen make that this is a charter amendment that happens to overturn – in this case, modify – a city ordinance and not a referendum to repeal it is one that Judge Hughes specifically rejected in his red light camera ruling. I’m not a lawyer, I can’t give you an opinion as to why this time it’s different. I’ll wait for a judge’s ruling like everybody else.

Again, assuming it gets that far. There are at least two more obstacles that I can see, one of which is mentioned in the story and one of which is not.

Council faces a deadline under state law of Aug. 20 for placing items on the Nov. 6 ballot.

City Secretary Anna Russell said Monday that it generally takes her office two weeks or more to count and validate so many petition signatures before they can go to council. Because the Texas Open Meetings Act requires a 72-hour advance notice of a government meeting, her office would have to finish the job in four days to provide for proper notice.

“Even under the best of circumstances I don’t see how in the world that could be done,” Feldman said.

There were complaints about how late the petitions were turned in back in 2010, too. The City Secretary managed to get the job done on time then. Based on this, it would seem impossible. Having said that, remember that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where the Enterprise discovers Scotty suspended in a transporter beam where he’d been for however many decades? Anyway, he and Geordi get into an argument about the proper way to inform the Captain about how much time is really needed to accomplish a task:

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Look, Mr. Scott, I’d love to explain everything to you, but the Captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.

[La Forge goes back to work; Scotty follows slowly]

Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Yeah, well, I told the Captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.

Scotty: How long will it really take?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: An hour!

Scotty: Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would *really* take, did ya?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Well, of course I did.

Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

So the question to ask is whether Anna Russell is more like La Forge or more like Scotty. I’ll leave that for you to debate. As for the other obstacle, given the August 20 statutory deadline for putting a referendum on the ballot, it seems to me that a tag by any Council member would settle the issue regardless of what a judge might say. I have no idea if any member would be inclined to do that, I’m just saying that one of them could. Houston Politics and Campos have more.

Another homeless feeding update

Depending on how you look at it, time is either running out for the petition signature gatherers who hope to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, or it isn’t.

Free to Give Houston, a recently formed political action committee, needs about 28,000 registered voters’ signatures to trigger a charter amendment election in November. The group sent out 30,000 letters last week urging voters to sign the petition.

Houston attorney Paul Kubosh, who formed the committee with his brother, Randy Kubosh, said the ordinance is an example of local government overstepping its bounds and ignoring the will of the people.

[…]

City Attorney David Feldman said the only approved way to challenge the ordinance is by referendum.

A petition with 12,362 signatures would have to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance’s passage or any time prior to the effective date. The deadline for the latter is the end of this week.

However, Paul Kubosh said residents can seek a charter amendment under state law, which trumps the city charter. As a result, there is no petition deadline, he said, and the opposition plans to submit a petition by July 30.

See here and here for some background. The requirement to have signatures collected by either the ordinance’s effective date or 30 days after passage was the basis for Judge Hughes’ ruling in the red light camera lawsuit that invalidated the 2010 referendum. It was suggested prior to that, and prior to Council’s vote to put the referendum on the ballot, that a charter amendment, which has a higher signature requirement but no similar deadline, would have been a valid path, and that seems to be the route the Kuboshes are taking. That’s not clear to me, and I don’t think the matter was directly addressed by Hughes or by the dismissal of the city’s lawsuit against ATS. What I’m saying here is that I foresee another date before a judge in the city’s future. I welcome speculation on this from the lawyers in the audience.

On a side note, I found this a bit grating:

Backers of the current petition drive argue that public property is owned by citizens and therefore they shouldn’t have to ask the city for permission to use it.

“We have a huge problem asking the city for permission to feed the poor,” said Manuel Sanchez, a volunteer with Simple Feast, a church ministry.

I agree that public property is owned by the citizens, but that includes the citizens who want to use that property for something other than feeding the homeless, too. How are we to settle a dispute that arises from such a conflict? “We were here first” seems lacking to me. Feeding the homeless is a noble purpose, but that doesn’t mean less-noble purposes have to be subordinate to it. I understood the objections to a lot of the other provisions that are now not in the homeless feeding ordinance, but this one I confess I just don’t get.

Mailing letters about the homeless ordinance

Not really sure what to make of this.

Activists against Houston’s new restrictions on feeding the homeless plan to mail around 30,000 letters Friday to urge voters to sign a petition to trigger a charter amendment election in November.

Paul Kubosh, a defense lawyer who was also behind the referendum effort against the red-light camera tickets, will send the letters to more than 70,000 registered voters. Along with members of Ministers Against Crime and the Houston Area Pastor Council, Kubosh calls the controversial ordinance a “draconian anti-giving and sharing food law.”

Okay. Some percentage of those letters will be received and read. Some percentage of those who read the letters will be inclined to do something about it. You then have to actually get a petition in front of those people to sign, all by July 31. I’m not saying they can’t do it, but there’s a lot to be done between posting the letters and presenting the petitions for certification. We’ll see how it goes. Hair Balls has more.

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.

No action on red light camera settlement yet

Going, going...

Houston City Council voted to wait two weeks before deciding whether or not to accept the settlement agreement with camera vendor ATS.

The City Council on Wednesday delayed approval of a $4.8 million settlement with its red-light camera vendor amid questions about the effect of an appeals court ruling that lets two Houston lawyers intervene in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh should be allowed to join in the lawsuit.

Though the city and American Traffic Solutions plan to ask for the case to be dismissed if the settlement is approved by City Council, the Kuboshes said they want to keep the case alive to overturn a judge’s ruling that invalidated the November 2010 charter referendum they organized to ban the use of cameras in Houston. Their attorney also argued in a hearing after Wednesday’s council meeting that the Kuboshes should have standing in the contract dispute. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted them a hearing on Feb. 6 to make their case.

Should the judge allow the Kuboshes to intervene in the contract dispute, City Attorney David Feldman said, he will not bring the settlement back to the council on Feb. 8 as planned.

“I’m not walking into quicksand,” Feldman said. The Kuboshes’ intervention could undermine any deal the city reaches with ATS, he said.

Feldman says that dismissing the suit would wipe away the ruling that invalidated the election; the Kuboshes disagree. They want it enshrined in the charter that cameras can’t be put up again without a popular vote. The city and ATS say that’s already the case, and besides, changes to state law enacted after the city installed its cameras would make re-installing them more onerous and expensive to do. I’m not a lawyer, I’ll let the courts sort all this out, but I do want to comment on this:

David Furlow, an attorney for the Kuboshes, said in an interview following Tuesday’s Council meeting, “The real issue is vindication of the people’s constitutionally protected right to vote.” In Furlow’s view, Hughes has ruled that a local ordinance trumps state constitutional rights. The people’s right to challenge an ordinance should last more than a month, Furlow said.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Seems to me the way to address the issue is with a charter amendment. Surely that’s preferable to taking your chances with a judge. Houston Politics has more.

Anyway. We’ll see what happens with the hearing in Judge Hughes’ court. In the meantime, since I brought up the question of how much money the city currently has in the escrow account that holds previously collected fines, I heard back on my inquiry to the Mayor’s office. According to them there is now about $3 million in that escrow account, meaning that the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be “in the next special municipal election”, whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.

RIP, red light cameras

There they go.

Houston’s red-light cameras are done issuing violations. This time, permanently.

City Council dealt the controversial cameras a double death blow Wednesday, first ordering their immediate shutdown and then outlawing the use of cameras to catch red-light runners.

More than nine months after a majority of Houston voters rejected red-light cameras in a referendum and a month after Mayor Annise Parker ordered them back on, City Attorney David Feldman and Police Chief Charles McClelland issued an order to American Traffic Solutions to shut their cameras off at 12:01 p.m. Wednesday.

It’s been a long, strange road to this point, and it’s not quite over yet as there’s still that teeny matter of settling/litigating the dissolution of the contract with ATS, who made a last ditch settlement offer prior to this that was rejected. Nonetheless, this is a moment for the people who worked to get rid of them to celebrate. I don’t agree with their position, and I certainly gave them a hard time in this space, but today I tip my cap to the Kuboshes and their crew for their hard-fought victory. I just hope we’ll all still feel festive when we learn how big a check we have to write. Stace, Hair Balls, and Houston Politics have more.

Red light camera tickets begin again tomorrow

Drive appropriately. You have been warned.

Houston police will begin issuing red-light camera citations Sunday at 50 intersections around the city, the latest maneuver in a protracted court battle over the controversial but lucrative traffic surveillance system.

Police Chief Charles McClelland has decided to start with a “clean slate,“ explaining he will not issue citations to red-light runners who were recorded after the cameras were turned back on July 9. Mayor Annise Parker ordered the cameras to resume recording after a federal judge struck down the November referendum that saw 53 percent of voters reject the program.

“We have been working very hard to make sure our infrastructure is put back in place, and we are up and running and ready to go,” McClelland said Thursday. “As of 12:01 (a.m.), July 24, the Houston Police Department will start back issuing citations to motorists who run red lights at intersections that have digital red-light cameras.”

McClelland also said an existing contract with the red-light camera vendor allows the city to expand the system, and he plans to add more cameras in the future.

Okay, look. I voted for the cameras. I thought that the election should not have been held, on the grounds that Judge Hughes cited in his ruling. I agree with the decision to turn the cameras back on pending a ruling on what the city’s contractual obligations are. (Any word from Judge Hughes on this yet? The hearing to hash that out was on Wednesday.) But this? No. Even mentioning the possibility of maybe adding more cameras some time down the line can be charitably described as a really lousy idea. The fire’s plenty hot right now, please don’t go adding any fuel to it.

McClelland repeated his strong support of red-light cameras for a Police Department that was forced in recent weeks to cut $40 million from the current year’s budget and lay off 154 civilian employees.

The chief noted that traffic enforcement is a core service the department must provide, but without technology such as surveillance cameras he would be forced to pull officers off of neighborhood patrols.

“The camera can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week,“ McClelland said. “The camera does not complain about it being cold or hot. The camera can work in the rain, and the camera does not submit an overtime slip.”

I know everyone’s tired of re-litigating the same issues we argued over ad nauseum last year, but if you’re going to do it anyway, I recommend embracing the budgetary aspect of this, and de-emphasizing the safety aspect. At least everyone agrees that the cameras make the city some money, so the dispute is over whether it’s worth it, not whether it’s true. It’s at least theoretically possible that some people who voted against the cameras because they didn’t buy the safety argument or just didn’t like the idea of having them might be willing to accept them as an alternative to cutting the police budget. Or not – everyone may just be too sick of the whole damn thing by now to be persuaded of anything – but I don’t think anyone’s mind can be changed by the safety argument at this point, so what the hell.

More on the red light camera return

Here’s the Chron story about the reinstatement of the red light cameras. A couple of points that need to be made:

Wednesday’s announcement provoked the full fury of Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who helped lead the petition drive to get the cameras banned. When reached for comment, he did not even wait for a question. “Start typing!” he said, and launched into a rant criticizing the decision.

“The mayor is going to ask for your vote in November. How can you possibly give her your vote when she does not respect yours?” Kubosh said. “She is not following the will of the citizens of Houston, she is following her own conscience.”

Kubosh repeated his accusation that the city shopped the suit in federal court in hopes of an unfavorable ruling that would compel it to turn the cameras back on.

[…]

Parker made the announcement flanked by Police Chief Charles McClelland and Fire Chief Terry Garrison, who both insisted that the cameras make the streets safer. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, agreed.

“It’s good news because they reduce injuries,” Blankinship said. “The data clearly shows that serious injury accidents are reduced in those intersections when the cameras are there.”

Given that the issue is why the cameras were turned back on after the voters rejected them, the question about safety is completely beside the point. That issue was extensively debated last year, and the pro-camera forces lost. You can believe whatever you want about red light cameras and safety – the data is at best inconclusive, and nobody’s mind is going to be changed by another rehashing of the same arguments. In my opinion, bringing this up at all undermines the Mayor’s stated reason for turning the cameras back on, which is that we are basically forced to do so pending the appeal of the judge’s ruling, because it is a reminder of the losing campaign for the cameras.

As for Kubosh’s ranting, the irony is that if you accept the judge’s ruling – which is right here and is quite clear and concise and really ought to be read by everyone expressing an opinion about it – Mayor Parker should not have urged Council members to vote to put this referendum on the ballot in the first place. She should have told them to vote against it and provoked the fight we are now having last August. It was at the insistence of Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman that Council “supinely ignored – over the voices of some of its members – their responsibility”. If the Mayor ever chooses to directly respond to Kubosh, that should be the first thing she points out.

Now of course not everyone – certainly not most camera opponents – accept the ruling. When it gets appealed, and I do believe the appeal will be allowed to proceed, we’ll get to argue about why Judge Hughes was right or wrong to rule as he did. Some people, including Kubosh and a few of my commenters, have argued that it never should have been Judge Hughes to rule at all, that this case should have been heard by a state judge and not a federal one. I’m not qualified to address that point, but having read the ruling I don’t see why a state judge would have seen it any differently. I recommend you look at JJ’s comment, which addresses that issue, among others. If someone would like to explain to my non-lawyer self why the federal court was the wrong venue, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I’ll say again – read the ruling. It’s the only thing that’s relevant at this point.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron story discusses the choices the city faced after the election:

The city of Houston might have been able to shut off its red-light cameras within four months of voters demanding it in last November’s elections, but the Parker administration opted not to use an escape clause that would have meant more than $3 million in continuing costs while the clock ran out.

Eight months later, the city continues to grapple in court with the company that operates the cameras and contends that damages could reach $20 million over the life of the contract if the controversial devices are not reactivated.

Faced with that potential liability, Mayor Annise Parker declared on Wednesday that the cameras soon would resume issuing citations.

Instead of using its four-month escape clause in November, the city declared that the election immediately voided the contract and ordered Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions to shut off the cameras within days. Litigation ensued, of course.

And we know how that went. I’m going to step out on a limb here and suggest that people’s opinion of the city’s decision will correlate pretty tightly with their opinion of the cameras in the first place.

Kubosh files appeal in red light camera lawsuit

Mary Benton has the story and the appeal documents. Relevant quote:

In the Kubosh appeal attorneys argue, among other points, “if government by the people, of the people, and for the people is to have meaning in Houston, this Court must permit Appellants to appeal the manifestly erroneous, June, 17, 2011, summary judgment granted in ATS’ favor.”

I will simply note that Paul Kubosh had filed a motion to intervene in the original lawsuit, on the grounds that the city was “not defending the outcome of the election aggressively enough”. Judge Lynn Hughes denied his motion, saying that just as “a councilman who managed an ordinance through the council would not be allowed to join a suit to defend it when it is challenged in court.” As such, I don’t know that he would be considered to have standing to file this appeal. I’m not a lawyer, of course, so take that with the appropriate amount of salt. At least this gives us something to ponder while we wait to see what the city will do.

Accidents down at former red light camera intersections

I guess some arguments are never going to go away.

In the five months after Houston voters forced city officials to turn off a camera surveillance system that fined motorists for running red lights, traffic accidents at those 50 intersections with 70 cameras have decreased 16 percent, according to recently released data.

The drop in accidents surprised Houston police administrators who say a possible explanation is the unusually dry weather during recent months has made driving conditions safer. They also wonder if years of electronic monitoring have made Houstonians better, if not more cautious, drivers.

Assistant Chief Brian Lumpkin said he had assumed accidents at those intersections were increasing since HPD is still receiving raw data from the camera vendor indicating motorists were running lights with much greater frequency at many intersections. The HPD records show accidents decreased at 32 intersections, increased at 21 and stayed the same at 17.

“It’s too soon to really tell. I think we’ll get a better idea of what’s going on in another year,” Lumpkin said. “But we also have to remember we’ve had some really great weather, and anybody who rides patrol on a regular basis knows as soon as that rain hits, the wrecks start to happen.”

While HPD officials called the accident data a “valuable snapshot” for traffic enforcement purposes, it did not break down the severity of the accidents or the number of fatalities, if any.

This would be the flip side of this previous story about the violations going up in the same time period. The data about how severe the accidents are would be nice to know, but at this point I mostly don’t care any more. The election is over, the voters have spoken, the cameras are turned off and they aren’t coming back on, and I have no interest in re-litigating any of this. Let’s just move on down the road.

Kuboshes told to butt out of ATS lawsuit

I didn’t know judges issued rulings on Sundays, but I guess sometimes they do.

Red-light camera opponents will not be allowed to help defend a November referendum in which voters rejected the devices, a federal judge ruled on Sunday, saying there was no evidence the city of Houston is failing to represent the public’s interest in the case.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said the Kubosh family, which bankrolled the red-light camera petition, could not “intervene” in the litigation over how the city should terminate its contract with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that ran the camera program.

[…]

Hughes wrote in his ruling that Kubosh could not join the suit, just as “a councilman who managed an ordinance through the council would not be allowed to join a suit to defend it when it is challenged in court.”

The fact that Parker and most council members advocated on behalf of the cameras does not prove that the city has a “mixed motivation,” he said.

“The practice of politics by administration officials does not equal dereliction of duty,” he said.

Hughes has yet to rule on other facets of the case, including whether the referendum was legal and on whether the city was correct in terminating the contract because of the referendum.

We may get a ruling on those other items by the end of the year. Mary Benton has more.

Red light camera lawsuit

I’m trying to understand exactly what this is all about. Here’s the little sidebar summary, which captures the basic facts pretty well:

The city of Houston • filed a “pre-emptive lawsuit” in U.S. District Court Nov. 15 seeking a judge’s opinion on how it should proceed after terminating its contract with red light camera company American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, once voters had rejected the camera program.

ATS • filed a countersuit Nov. 24 seeking to nullify the referendum, arguing that the city improperly put the matter on the ballot.

Paul Kubosh and his brothers filed a motion to intervene in the matter Nov. 30, arguing that the city of Houston was not defending the outcome of the election aggressively enough. The Kubosh brothers bankrolled the effort to have the camera program repealed.

Here’s an earlier Chron story about that “pre-emptive lawsuit”, which required the city to leave the cameras up (though it did not require them to continue collecting fines) until the matter is settled. I guess if the idea was to pre-empt ATS from suing, it didn’t work. ATS, like anyone else, is free to sue anyone for anything, but I’ll say again that I believe any litigation relating to the validity of the referendum should have been filed and ideally resolved before the election. As was discussed ad nauseum here at that time, the issue wasn’t that you couldn’t force a vote on the matter but that there are two different ways to go about it, and that the way the Kuboshes should have gone awould have required more signatures (though not that many more) than they got. At least, that’s what it looked like to me after some comments from people like JJMB. But again, that should have been resolved before we all voted, because it’s basically a correctable error, for a future election if not for the current one. I know this isn’t how the world works, but to me the question about whether or not a referendum is legal should be moot after the referendum has actually been conducted, much like how an NFL coach can’t challenge a call once the ball has been snapped for the next play.

Of course, the world doesn’t work that way, so the court will presumably consider ATS’ challenge. Which it should then reject, since the underlying issue (again, at least as I understand it) isn’t nearly worth overthrowing the will of the voters. I don’t know what sufficient cause might be, but I know this isn’t it. As for the Kuboshes’ contention that the city will pussyfoot around on defense against ATS because it secretly hopes the judge will toss the referendum, I’ll just note that City Attorney David Feldman basically ordered City Council to vote to put it on the ballot, over the objections of several members. To claim that he’s going to sandbag now is both inconsistent with his earlier actions as well as a bit insulting. Well, the Kuboshes have been more successful outside the courtroom on this than they have been inside it, so I’m not too worried about that. We’ll see how it goes.

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.

More on the red light camera Council vote

The fuller version of the Chron story addresses the question about whether the petition drive was lawful or not according to the city’s charter.

“It is your absolute sworn duty to place this on the ballot,” [Mayor Annise] Parker told council.

Several camera supporters on council disagreed, saying the proposal was “illegal” because it circumvented rules in the city charter that dictate that efforts to overturn city ordinances through referendum must be concluded within 30 days of a law taking effect. Since the red light camera ordinance was passed in 2004, some council members said, the petition was too late.

“Items like this don’t belong in the city charter,” said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who led the fight against the amendment. “Otherwise, we would be like California. … Anything we vote on at this table could be overturned by petition.”

[City Attorney David] Feldman, who forcefully argued that it was council members’ “mandatory ministerial duty” to put the amendment on the November ballot, acknowledged that the city charter does hold referendum proponents to the 30-day time limit. State law, however, has no such provision. He argued that state law would trump the charter in this case.

Clearly, that will be one of the issues for a judge to rule on, if and when someone files suit to stop the referendum. I want to also call your attention to this comment by JJMB from my previous entry that clarifies things further:

The City Charter itself has both a “referendum” section and an “initiative” section. The Kuboshes have avoided both of those procedures. “Initiative and referendum” are the way that voters have reacted to specific laws for hundreds of years. The hurdles are higher — react within 30 days and get 10% the highest Mayor election turnout in the last 3 years for referendum, or no time limit but 15% for an initiative. Notwithstanding the news reports, I believe that the initiative route has also been suggested as the way this should go — maybe not by KHS, but by some council members and lawyers.

I believe one could be a stickler and say that the 30 day process is the only way to go to rescind an ordinance that the representative body already put in place. But I read Kuffner’s prior post, and I’m willing to let the Kuboshes proceed with the initiative process, even though literally — and for 200 years — that is used to put a new ordinance in place without the representative body.

But it seems that the Kuboshes don’t want to go either of the way that the City voters — who put the City Charter in place — have established as the correct path.

Instead, the Kuboshes use state law to amend the charter itself. So along with “governance” type sections about whether the Mayor is strong or weak, how many councilmembers, term limits, voting procedures, etc., they want to add a specific red light camera rule. This is not the historical use of “referendum.”

But the 15% path is what … 40,000 signatures? So the Kuboshes took the easier 20,000 signature route.

Actually, by my calculation based on 181,000 votes cast in the last Mayoral election, it’s a bit more than 27,000 signatures. I’m unsure as a result of checking that figure where the 21,000-and-change figure for getting on the ballot this year came from, but if that was the standard, then a 15% threshold would be 31,500. Either one is more than the total that the Kuboshes submitted.

Anyway, JJMB’s comment clears up my confusion from that earlier post. I only quoted from section 3 of the city charter, entitled “Referendum”. I had skipped over section 2, entitled “Initiative”, because of this language:

The initiative shall be exercised in the following manner:

(a) Petition. A petition signed and verified in the manner and form required for recall petition in Article VI-a by qualified electors equal to fifteen per cent. of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition, accompanied by the proposed legislation or measure in the form of a proposed ordinance or resolution, and requesting that such ordinance or resolution be submitted to a vote of the people, if not passed by the Council, shall be filed with the Secretary.

I saw the word “recall” and assumed it was specifically about recall elections, so I didn’t read this all the way through. Given that this mechanism exists, I take back my comments about the 30-day window being too restrictive. If this is the requirement for an effort outside of that time frame, then it’s clear that the Kuboshes have fallen short of the signature total needed, and it would seem that a state judge would be likely to toss this off the ballot. But again, until someone actually sues and a judge actually rules, it’s on.

One more thing:

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones questioned why council members did not put up a similar fight against another charter amendment proposal backed by powerful engineers that asks voters to tax themselves for an $8 billion program to shore up the city’s infrastructure and fix flooding problems.

“I just want us to be consistent,” Jones said.

The difference here is that the Kubosh effort is aiming at overturning an existing Council-enacted law, while the Renew Houston effort is not. At least, that’s how I perceive it. But I take CM Jones’ point.

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.

Red light camera opponents turn in their petitions

I was beginning to wonder if the anti-red light camera crowd was ever going to turn in their petition signatures, as it’s starting too get a little late in the game. They made their move on Monday, submitting 30,000 petition signatures (22,000 valid ones are needed) to City Secretary Anna Russell to get their proposition to ban the cameras on the ballot. As with everything else they do, this was not without controversy.

Mayor Annise Parker questioned whether there would be enough time for the city secretary to verify that the signatures are from registered Houston voters before an upcoming Aug. 24 election deadline.

Parker said the city secretary’s office would follow the same procedures used for Renew Houston, a group of engineers seeking voter approval for an $8 billion initiative to prevent flooding and shore up Houston’s infrastructure. Backers of that referendum turned in their signatures July 8, and they were verified July 30.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Parker said, “Citizens Against Red Light Cameras have turned these petitions in very late in the process and the Renew Houston petitions took three weeks to be certified. … If it takes just as long, it will not meet the deadline to be on the ballot this fall.”

Andy Taylor, a lawyer representing Keep Houston Safe, a political action committee formed to advocate for the cameras, also said the proposed referendum is illegal, citing a city ordinance that requires petitions for a vote to repeal a law be turned in within 30 days of when it takes effect.

“Who could possibly be against safety cameras that save children’s lives?” Taylor said. “This petition is too late. This petition is out of time and dead on arrival.”

[Paul] Kubosh noted that signatures for several other referendums put to voters in the past decade have been turned in either in August or September and still made it onto the ballot, including the 2001 charter amendment that authorized light rail and another that outlawed benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.

(Before anyone brings it up, yes, that’s my old friend Andy Taylor. Insert your own joke about politics and strange bedfellows.)

The ordinance that limits petition-driven repeal efforts to 30 days after the passage of the law in question is news to me. Here’s the relevant bit from the city charter:

Section 3. – Referendum.

If prior to the date when an ordinance or resolution shall take effect, or within thirty days after the publication of same, a petition signed and verified, as required in section 2-a hereof, by the qualified voters equal in number to ten per centum of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition as hereinbefore provided, shall be filed with the Secretary, protesting against the enactment or enforcement of such ordinance or resolution, it shall be suspended from taking effect and no action theretofore taken under such ordinance or resolution shall be legal and valid. Immediately upon the filing of such petition the Secretary shall do all things required by section 2-b of this Article. Thereupon the Council shall immediately reconsider such ordinance or resolution and, if it do not entirely repeal the same, shall submit it to popular vote at the next municipal election, or the Council may, in its discretion, call a special election for that purpose; and such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof. (Added by amendment October 15, 1913)

I dunno. What that says to me is that if you can get your petitioning act together within 30 days, you can actually get the law in question suspended until everything gets sorted out. It doesn’t say to me that after 30 days you can never change or overturn a city law via the referendum process. (Whether that would be a good thing or not is a separate question.) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet money that if this article is used as justification for rejecting Kubosh’s petitions the matter will wind up in court, and I strongly suspect a judge would be sympathetic to Kubosh’s arguments. Seems to me that given how arduous and expensive the petition signature-gathering effort is, a 30-day deadline for action is a mighty high hurdle to clear. Maybe I’m missing something – again, I Am Not A Lawyer – but I don’t see how this is a fatal flaw for Kubosh.

On the other hand, the matter of verifying the signatures in time may be a significant issue. The controlling statute here is Section 3.005, subsection (c) of the Elections Code, which reads “For an election to be held on the date of the general election for state and county officers, the election shall be ordered not later than the 70th day before election day.” That’s August 24 in this case, which makes it the deadline for Anna Russell to say whether or not Team Kubosh has met the threshold. Kubosh’s claims about the light rail and same-sex benefits referenda are irrelevant, because Subsection (c) was added to the code in 2005. Prior to that, the deadline was 62 days before an election, which given that Election Day can be as late as November 8 meant a drop-dead date as late as September 7.

Actually, the effective deadline in this case is even earlier than the 24th. As Jim McGrath of Keep Houston Safe reminded me in an email, Council must authorize the referendum for the ballot, and the last Council meeting before the deadline is August 18. (It’s not on Council’s agenda for today.) That ain’t a lot of time to get the job done.

My take on this, therefore, is that it will come down to whether or not Russell certifies the signatures in time, assuming there are in fact enough valid ones. One presumes, given the Renew Houston example, that she will be examining each signature and not using statistical sampling, which she has the discretion to do but is not required to do. (It’s not clear to me she could do it in the six working days she has before the 18th even if she did use sampling.) I expect Kubosh to wail and gnash his teeth about this, and I won’t be surprised to see it come before a judge as well, but if so I expect he’ll lose just as Carole Keeton Strayhorn did back in 2006. Mary Benton has more.

Finally, you may have noticed at the end of the story a reference to an updated red light camera study that shows collisions have in fact decreased at red light-enabled intersections, which contradicts the initial study, done by the same authors. I will deal with that in a subsequent post.

The anti-red light camera referendum drive begins

As we know, the anti-red light camera forces intend to collect enough petition signatures to put a charter referendum on the ballot this November. On Friday, they got started.

Because red-light camera citations remain outside the realm of tickets that can be contested with assistance from a lawyer, many who specialize in that work have lined up behind the anti-red-light camera effort.

The push to defend the cameras also has been joined by local furniture store magnate Jim McIngvale, signaling that the political fight over the devices could grow heated by the time it is expected to culminate in a November charter amendment vote.

Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who sent petition forms to more than 20,000 former clients Friday and is bankrolling the effort to seek voter rejection of the cameras, said the devices have increased accidents and do not free up police resources.

“Red-light cameras are dangerous,” he said. “What are they really for? There’s only one thing, and that’s money.”

For all his bleating about red light cameras being about money, I don’t think it had occurred to me before I read that first paragraph quoted above that Paul Kubosh also has a financial stake in this. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s be clear about it.

This story doesn’t mention it, but the Chron story cited in that previous post said that 20,000 signatures were needed by July 1, and that Kubosh claimed to have “at least 50,000 registered voters in my client base”. Assuming they have the resources to get the forms in front of enough people, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble getting the signatures they need.

I’ve mentioned before that neither Paul nor Michael Kubosh is resident of the city of Houston, and thus are not eligible to vote in this referendum they want to force. Turns out that the same is true of camera defender Jim McIngvale. Am I the only person who’s annoyed by this?

There was a lot of discussion in my previous post about the successful effort last year in College Station to pass an anti-camera referendum. There were charges and counter-charges made by the opposing sides, and a post-election lawsuit that was filed over the wording of the referendum; according to Ballotpedia, the judge ultimately ruled that the wording of the referendum was unclear, but the city had already terminated its contract with camera company American Traffic Solutions, so the effect was nil. The Battalion link above mentioned a poll that showed a very similar level of support for the cameras among “likely” voters – 64% in College Station, 65% in Houston. I don’t know how they did their likely voter screen for that poll, but the average turnout for municipal elections in College Station is about eight percent. The 2009 referendum drew twice that amount; I’d guess the poll didn’t account for that possibility. I expect this year to be a higher turnout year than usual, but we’re not going to see anything like that. This referendum will surely be lower profile, relatively speaking, than the one in College Station, which had essentially nothing competing with it for voters’ attention. Whether either of these factors benefits the pro- or anti-camera side, I couldn’t say. We ought to be in for an interesting campaign.

More on the red light camera poll

Last week I wrote about a poll commissioned by a group called the Keep Houston Safe PAC about attitudes towards red light cameras. The result was quite favorable for the cameras, but at the time I didn’t have full information on the poll. I do now, and you can see the polling memo here and the crosstabs plus question wording here. Basically, the demographics of the poll look reasonable to me, and the support for the cameras is across the board. Given how much media attention the anti-camera forces have succeeded in getting, it’s almost stunning how positively the cameras poll. As I said before, no one has run an ad yet in any campaign to disallow them, so there’s still room for opinion to move, but given the high level of awareness and the sizable number of people who said they strongly support the cameras, I’d say Team Kubosh has an uphill task before it.

Poll shows strong support for red light cameras

The following hit my inbox early Friday morning:

A citywide survey of 500 likely voters in Houston’s 2010 general election conducted by a nationally respected polling firm last month finds strong support for the City of Houston’s intersection safety camera program that cuts across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines.

The survey, which was conducted March 1-2, 2010 by Wilson Research Strategies LLC, discovered several key findings:

  • Two-thirds of highly likely Houston voters, 65 percent, support the use of Intersection Safety Cameras.
  • Almost half of likely voters, 45 percent, said they “strongly” support the high-tech equipment.
  • Over eight in ten Houstonians, 84 percent, have heard of the intersection safety program. Just two percent said they had “no opinion.”
  • Strong support for Intersection Safety Cameras cuts across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines: 65 percent of Whites; 67 percent of Hispanics; and 60 percent of African-Americans support the Intersection Safety Cameras.
  • Furthermore, Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all support Intersection Safety Cameras: 58 percent of Republicans; 73 percent of Independents; and 62 percent of Democrats support the devices.
  • Voters showed an overwhelming degree of support for Intersection Safety Cameras and the benefits they bring the Houston community: 77 percent of voters were convinced that Intersection Safety Cameras are a reasonable response to people who run red-lights; 74 percent of voters were convinced that it is helpful that Intersection Safety Cameras have the ability to record the date, time, location and speed of the vehicles they photograph to ensure the accuracy of tickets; 71 percent of voters were convinced that Intersection Safety Cameras make Houston safer; and 60 percent of voters were convinced that Intersection Safety Cameras help to free-up police officers so they can focus on fighting other crimes.
  • Finally, voters indicated that yellow light standards are important, with 80 percent of voters agreeing that every intersection should be reviewed to make sure that there are clear standards dictating how long a yellow light should last in order to improve the intersection safety cameras.

“Houston voters are overwhelmingly supportive of Intersection Safety Cameras,” states Wilson Research Strategies in their memo accompanying the survey results. “The vast majority of Houston voters are aware of the cameras and approve of the City of Houston’s use of them. While there are some differences in support among demographic groups, majorities of all political, racial, and socioeconomic groups support Intersection Safety Cameras. It is clear that Houston voters have reached an informed decision about Intersection Safety Cameras and believe that they are a worthwhile means for the city to effectively monitor traffic violations.”

A few things to note:

– I replied to the email to inquire about crosstabs and question wording, but have not heard anything back as yet. What you see above is everything I got.

– I’m pretty sure that I was one of the respondents to this poll. I got a robocall last week asking me about red light cameras, and I figure there can’t have been two of these in the field at the same time.

– Speaking of which, this is the first time I’ve ever heard the phrase “Intersection Safety Cameras”. To the best of my recollection, they used “red light cameras” in the questions. Which makes sense, since that’s the term that everyone had been using.

– Like I said, I can’t comment on the makeup of the poll or any of the details because I don’t have them. I don’t recall being amazed or insulted by any of the questions’ wording, which seems to me to be the easiest way to juke the responses, so assuming they got a reasonably representative sample and employed a sensible “likely voter” screen, this would appear to bode poorly for the Kubosh anti-red light camera referendum. Excuse me, the Kubosh anti-Intersection Safety Camera referendum. Still, it’s just one data point, and no one’s run any scaremongering ads yet, so don’t carve anything into stone.

– Finally, the disclaimer at the end of the release read “Paid Political Ad by Keep Houston Safe PAC – Jim McIngvale, Treasurer”. Just thought you’d want to know that.

Red light camera referendum may be coming

I’ve been expecting this to happen for awhile now.

Two lawyers who are suing the city over Houston’s red-light camera program and their supporters said Friday they need 20,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to end what they called a dangerous profit-driven scheme.

Lawyers Paul Kubosh and Randall Kallinen announced a petition drive on the steps of City Hall to get an amendment to the city charter on November’s ballot.

“This will stop the actual enforcement of the cameras for all tickets issued prior to the adoption of this petition and for all tickets going forward,” Kubosh said. “It will force the city to stop it completely, if it passes.”

[…]

The group, including Kallinen and Kubosh and his brothers Randy Kubosh and Mike Kubosh, also announced Friday the creation of a PAC, Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, to get the required number of signatures by July 1.

“I have at least 50,000 registered voters in my client base,” Paul Kubosh said. “They’re all getting mailers.”

Twenty thousand signatures isn’t that high a hurdle, so I won’t be surprised if they succeed in getting their proposition on the ballot. And if they do, I won’t be surprised if it passes. Not because I think it’s the more popular position – I actually suspect it isn’t, but I’m not aware of any polling data, so I really have no idea – but because I don’t think there will be an organized effort on the part of the pro-camera forces to get out the vote. Frankly, the person who would need to push this is Mayor Parker, and I don’t know how she feels about the red light cameras, as they weren’t an issue in the campaign. I’m sure she favors them, but that’s not the same as being willing to risk political capital by publicly fighting for them. I really don’t know how this might play out.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the vast majority of support that Kallinen and his merry band of Kuboshes claims comes from people who, like Paul and Michael Kubosh, do not live in the city of Houston and thus would be ineligible to actually vote for this referendum. I believe these guys have intensity, but I don’t know how broad their base is. It’ll be interesting to watch, that much I know.

City to release documents related to red light camera study

They’re being ordered to do so by a judge, but it doesn’t look like they’re particularly bothered by it.

Paul Kubosh and Randall Kallinen filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s refusal to release 208 documents they requested under the Texas Public Information Act, many of them internal city communications and e-mails to and from the camera vendor, relating to last year’s city-sponsored study of the effectiveness of the camera program.

State District Judge Tracy Christopher has ordered the city to release 160 of 208 contested documents, ruling the city legal department presented no evidence they should be withheld under the law’s exceptions for attorney-client privilege or the deliberative process.

[…]

City attorney Arturo Michel said the city likely would not appeal the order, noting that many of the documents had been added as exhibits to motions filed in court.

Okay then. I’m not sure why it took this long to release these documents, given that the study came out nearly a year ago, followed almost immediately by Kubosh and Kallinen’s suit demanding the release of the draft report of the study. The city hasn’t exactly gone to the mat to defend the need to keep these docs secret, so perhaps a certain amount of fuss could have been avoided.

Be that as it may, the idea behind this is apparently to fuel an effort to get a referendum to remove the cameras onto the ballot in 2010. Kubosh and Kallinen think that these docs will have something in them that will expose the program as a fake, or something. And who knows, maybe they’re right, though again it seems to me that if the city were concerned about it, they’d be putting up more of a fight to keep the docs secret. (They may yet appeal the initial ruling, so it’s not a given that they’ll hand them over.) All I know is that Kubosh was sure that the city’s camera program was unconstitutional, and he’s since given up that fight after losing in court.

Let’s assume for a minute that the docs do all get released, and there’s no smoking gun in them, though there are a few bits and pieces that Kubosh and Kallinen seize on to press their case. What are the odds their desired referendum passes? Offhand, I would say they’d have a chance, but I’d make it no better than a coin flip. They’ll have passion on their side, which certainly counts for something, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that their base is mostly Republicans who mostly don’t live in the city of Houston. Paul Kubosh, for example, doesn’t live in the city of Houston, at least according to his voter registration card. If this would be a city of Houston referendum, as I presume it would be, he himself would not be eligible to vote for it. I could be wrong, and I’d love to see some polling data on this, just as I’d love to see an update to that original badly-flawed study, but I’m not nearly as sure as they are that there’s gold at the end of this particular rainbow.

And the answer is…more cameras (maybe)

Well, there is some logic to it.

The Houston Police Department is considering changes — possibly even expansion — to its red-light camera program after a city-commissioned study showed that crashes went up at intersections where the devices have been installed.

“What we’re concerned about is safety, safety, safety at these intersections,” said Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier, whose command includes the camera system. “We want fewer injuries, we certainly don’t want any death, and we want a reduction in accidents.”

To meet those aims, the department will evaluate over the next few months whether existing cameras might be redeployed to intersections that continue to see a high volume of crashes and red-light running. They also could add to the 70 cameras now placed at 50 intersections around the city. The evaluation of the program and any options for updating it would be presented to City Council by June 30, Oettmeier said.

Critics said such options are not the best response to the controversial study, which the city released last month.

“If you’re putting more cameras at some intersections, what you’re going to do is make the intersections more dangerous,” said Paul Kubosh, an attorney who represents ticketed drivers in court and unsuccessfully sued to end the program. “That’s what’s going to be proven out by this.”

The report, authored by researchers at Rice University and Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute, showed crashes increased slightly at intersection approaches where cameras had been installed. The number of crashes, however, rose dramatically at unmonitored lanes of those same intersections, leading the study authors to conclude that the cameras had kept collisions lower than they would have been without the devices.

The results led police to look at the data and to determine whether monitoring more than one approach to an intersection was more effective.

One way or the other, we do need to understand what happened at those unmonitored approaches. Maybe the rise in accidents was a fluke, maybe we’re just counting them more accurately now, maybe there was some kind of effect from the monitored approaches, however odd that seems to me. We can’t make a good decision regarding what (if anything) to do about it unless we have a handle on what happened. I hope that’s the top priority, because otherwise we’re just guessing.

Not mentioned in this story is the next phase of the camera study, which I hope is being done with accepted methodology. Given the flaws in the initial study, I don’t think we know anything more about the effects of the cameras in Houston than we did when we started out. Surely the cameras’ critics would be hammering on this if the study had found a decrease in the number of accidents.