August 30, 2007
Council approves new red light camera rules

City Council yesterday amended the red light camera ordinances to comply with new state laws. The more interesting action was about the new cameras that were quietly installed at intersections that were already enabled.

The department added the new cameras without consulting council members, including the chairman of the public safety committee.

The council was not asked to amend the current contract with the vendor who installs and monitors the cameras, even though the payment terms only call for up to 50 approaches during the deal's five-year term.

[Mayor] White said he does not need a council vote to increase the number of cameras, and that the contract allows the department to expand at will, though he acknowledged the payment structure needs clarification.

Asked whether council members would need to approve any effort to expand the program to 100 intersections, White said: "We'd probably consult with council, but I don't think there'll be any need for a vote."

Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, a lawyer, said she did not know the panel's approval last year of the vendor contract meant the department could install multiple cameras at each intersection.

"The contract specifies 50 approaches," she said. "That, to me, is a lot different than 50 intersections."

I would prefer that Council have input on future expansions of the camera program. I don't think they need to approve every new location, but they should have some say in the overall direction it's going. And, um, we are going to do those engineering studies as required by that new state law before we go installing more cameras, right? Seems to me that the report on those proposed locations would be a good thing to bring up at a Council meeting, in case there's any questions.

The question of what the contract with the vendor specifies is an interesting one. I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck - "intersections" and "approaches" sure sound like two different things to me. It would be nice to know what the vendor thinks about this, wouldn't it?

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, however, said she wasn't concerned about HPD's move. "If you have a philosophical problem with them, then you have a problem with them," she said of the cameras. "If you think it's reasonable to monitor that way, then does it matter if you have them on every corner or just one corner?"

Clutterbuck was one of four members to vote against the ordinance change required by the state law.

"I feel very strongly that we need to create our own ordinances with regard to our streets," she said.

Council members Ada Edwards, Jarvis Johnson and Toni Lawrence also voted against the proposal. Council members Michael Berry and Addie Wiseman were absent for the vote.

Council Member Noriega emailed me the following after this article was published:

I voted against the cameras when I was in Austin--I have real concern about the whole idea of cameras everywhere from a civil liberties view, and unlike a fair number of D's, voted 'no' on this one. The question of having a camera on every corner is a serious matter, and I think it should be one where a whole community has a conversation, like in a referendum or town hall meetings or something.

Having said that, I was shocked at the level of violations, and so taken aback by the huge number of violators--thousands and thousands--and the unbelievable public safety hazard it represented, that I have had to rethink this. Clearly something needed to be done, and I have been quite conflicted ever since.

They passed this law last session, and I continue to think it over, and we discuss it at dinner quite a bit because, to me, this rises to the level of a profound philosophical question--liberty or safety, safety or liberty? In the face of that argument, adding a few cameras here or there doesn't seem like the issue.

I don't want anyone to think I don't see this as an important issue--Council Member Clutterbuck's comment that we need to control our own streets is well taken--when I have very serious concerns, indeed. They just aren't so much how many and where, but rather why? and with what implication? for our freedoms in this country.

The other item of interest from this story concerns the Kubosh lawsuit.

The council unanimously approved spending up to $175,000 to defend a lawsuit filed by Paul Kubosh, a lawyer representing his brother, Michael, who intentionally ran a red light to challenge the camera system.

"They want to save their red-light camera scheme," Michael Kubosh said. "If their case wasn't weak, they wouldn't need a high-dollar lawyer."

Would you have preferred they get a pro bono lawyer, like your brother? They've done pretty well with those, you may recall. I'll let the actual attorneys in my audience comment on this, but it seems to me that given the amount of time and effort needed to defend a lawsuit like this, $175K isn't a particularly extravagant sum.

One can, of course, criticize the city for paying any amount to defend itself from a suit if the actions that led to the suit were unwise or the defense is clearly untenable. But here, I have to wonder what point Kubosh is trying to prove by his continued pursuit of this suit. Recall what he said at the time:

Michael Kubosh said Sunday that he will argue the city cannot impose a civil penalty on drivers who run red lights.

"The city has gone outside their legislative authority," said Kubosh, who will be represented in court by his brother, lawyer Paul Kubosh. "We just can't let this go because accidents increase at intersections where these things are put up."

Well, SB1119 explicitly gave that authority to cities, so as I've said before, this action seems to have been rendered moot by that. Kubosh certainly could have amended his suit to challenge the constitutionality of the state law, but if he did I'd assume it would be the state defending itself, not the city. Maybe he just wants his own citation voided, I don't know. I can't tell what he's aiming for by pursuing this at this point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 30, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles