Red light cameras to be turned back on

For now, at least.

The city of Houston will turn its red-light cameras back on today, Mayor Annise Parker announced after this morning’s City Council meeting.

According to a statement from the mayor’s office, tickets will be issued after a “short period of equipment testing.”

Houston voters approved a referendum to turn off the cameras in November, but a federal judge ruled last month that it had been improperly placed on the ballot, rendering the results invalid. As a result, the city faced a choice to turn the cameras back on or canceling its contract with American Traffic Solutions, which could cost the city $16 million.

At the same time, Parker said, the city seek permission for an appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes in attempt to honor the will of the voters. Hughes ruled that the city charter requires that efforts to overturn an ordinance by referendum must occur within 30 days of an ordinance’s passage.

Red-light camera vendor ATS responded with a statement: “In accordance with Mayor Parker’s announcement, ATS is working to immediately reactivate and fully functionalize Houston’s red light safety cameras. We look forward to resuming work with the City on this important public safety initiative. As we have seen over the course of the last several years, Houston’s red light safety camera program has been successful in changing driver behavior, reducing collisions and ultimately saving lives.”

Here’s the full statement from Mayor Parker, courtesy of Mary Benton:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that the City will attempt to appeal a recent court ruling invalidating last fall’s vote on red-light cameras. In the meantime, the red-light cameras will be turned back on today. Ticket issuance will resume after a short period of equipment testing.“This is a difficult decision,” said Mayor Parker. “I have a responsibility to represent the interests of the voters, but I also have a responsibility to abide by the judge’s ruling. The City just went through a very painful budget process in which nearly 750 employees were laid off and park, library and health services were cut back. We simply don’t have the millions they claim we would owe for violating the court decision and our contractual obligation to American Traffic Solutions (ATS). Therefore, I have decided the fiscally-prudent path to take is to turn the cameras back on while also seeking a second chance for the voters in the courts.”

Mayor Parker emphasized the safety measures provided by the red-light camera program. ATS and the City are initiating a study to make sure the cameras are placed at the city’s most dangerous intersections. As a result of this review, some cameras may be moved from their current locations to intersections with higher accident rates upon completion of this review.In June, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled last November’s red-light camera referendum violated the City Charter and should not have been placed on the ballot. The ruling was based on a charter provision that mandates any challenge of a city ordinance by referendum must occur within 30 days of passage of the ordinance. City Council adopted an ordinance initiating the use of red-light cameras in 2004. Opponents did not mount their ballot challenge until 2010.

The district court decision is an interlocutory ruling. As such, the City must first ask Judge Hughes for permission to appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Permission is also required from the appellate court.

“It is not the prerogative of City Council to decide which laws it wants to follow,” Parker said. “We had no choice in putting the referendum on the ballot last fall. However, we do have the ability to settle this question for future City Councils and the public.”

See here for the discussion of “interlocutory”. I will simply note that the judge’s ruling essentially contradicts the Mayor’s assertion that Council was compelled to put the referendum on the ballot. To do what the opponents wanted to do would have required a referendum, which was not done in the allotted time specified by the city’s charter. This was CM Clutterbuck’s argument at the time Council voted, but she did not carry the day.

Anyway. You can see the brief that the city filed in this Houston Politics post. Among other things, it notes that there were contractual questions that were not addressed in the original ruling, and that “Allowing the appellate courts to affirm or reverse the decision at this juncture is critical to determining the remaining contractual issues.” In other words, to seeing how much on the hook to ATS the city might be.

UPDATE: Changed “initiative” to “referendum” in the penultimate paragraph per JJ’s comment.

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27 Responses to Red light cameras to be turned back on

  1. Harrisburg Blvd. Liberal says:

    I’m so tired of this issue.

  2. So much for Parker’s claim that no matter what the judge says the cameras won’t come back on. Looks like the city’s plan co ordinated with ATS to overturn the election and get the cameras back on is rolling right along.

  3. Mike says:

    Good – it’s best for us to use technology that helps make us safer.

  4. Craig says:

    Hughes’ ruling argues that because Houston is a home-rule city, its voters should NOT have the right to make their own decisions about how to best run their city. This argument is like saying you’re “f*cking for abstinence.”

    Look to the closing paragraph, where Hughes says “The Founders’ definition of tyranny was arbitrary government. Timid or over-enthusiastic city officials can destroy regular government as easily as a king.” Does he not understand that a single Federal judge overruling a fair and proper democratic election is equivalent to a banana republic dictator nullifying an election because they LOST? That even allowing the City (who wants red light cameras) to be matched against the red light camera company (who wants red light cameras) is unconstitutional and against the very basic premise of the American adversarial system of justice? That the DEFINITION of arbitrary is:
    1. subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion: an arbitrary decision.
    2. decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute.
    3. having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government.

    (In other words, Judge Lynn Hughes’ decision DEFINES the word).

    Then Annise Parker’s discussion of having a second election to see if people wanted to change the law echoed these same tyrannical themes. YOU CANNOT HAVE ANOTHER ELECTION JUST BECAUSE YOU LOST. Now, polls are running at about 70% opposed to the cameras and nearly that same percentage are questioning the mayor’s re-election, which previously had been poised to cruise to victory. Now she’s looking more and more like the Titanic – seemingly invincible and about to be brought down by something which didn’t seem capable of it.

    The methodology used by the petition gatherers is laid out in the Texas Local government code, and this very issue has already been adjudicated in the past. Case law makes very clear that the method is valid. Furthermore, the 10th Amendment leaves these sorts of state and local decision-making questions to state apparatus instead of federal. Where the question is in doubt, Hughes should have filed a certified question to the Texas Supreme Court, which is the highest-ranking interpreter of Texas state law.

    The Hughes decision consists of terrible policy, terrible law, and terrible reasoning. By ruling the way he did with an interlocutory order, he intentionally made it difficult (read impossible) to appeal because you have to have his permission to appeal. This decision would NEVER stand up at any level of appeal, but this sort of chicanery has epitomized the entire way the Arizona-based red light camera company and its minions have operated here in Texas. They out-spend, out-bribe, and out-politic until they get their way, then try to take their ball and go home.

    The People are against the cameras, now more than ever. Perhaps Mayor Parker and ever Judge Hughes would do well to pay attention to the huge inscription in City Hall – “The People Are The City.” It is a lesson that must apparently be retaught.

    Hughes’ hilariously bad ruling available for everyone to read at:

    Since Hughes felt the urge to refer the Founders and tell us that the founders said that arbitrary government was tyranny. I respond: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    This tyranny will not stand.

  5. JJ says:

    Craig — So what purpose does the referendum section of the City Charter serve?

  6. Ron in Houston says:

    @Mike – safer is clearly up in the air – many reputable studies say red light cameras don’t make us safer

    @JJ – just because there are two ways to skin the cat doesn’t make one of them wrong.

  7. JJ says:

    No, Ron, sorry, but you are wrong there. The referendum section of the City Charter is very clearly how the “citizens” “legislate” — both words are used in that section. The Texas Legislature years later put a state law in place to provide how to amend the Charter, and legislative history makes clear that there was no intention to do away with every Texas city’s referendum provision if it chose to have one. State law only trumps city law if the State clearly takes that step. That is a bedrock principle that makes this different from cat skinning, which does not have a complicated structure around it like government does. In this case, using State law would mean that the City referendum section is rendered useless; no one would ever go that route; and rendering provisions of our fundamental governing document meaningless violates a bedrock rule of judicial interpretation (Judge Hughes is very much a conservative judge by the way). And remember that fundamentally we have a representative form of government — referendum for 200+ years has been limited, because mostly the citizens change things by talking to their reps or electing new ones.

    Charles – BTW, “initiative” is citizens putting a new ordinance in place — you mean to use referendum, which is canceling an ordinance that the lege body put in place.

  8. Ron in Houston says:

    @JJ – what you’re doing is rendering the charter amendment provisions meaningless if that charter amendment happens to negate some ordinance. The fact remains that voters can either have a referendum and they can vote to change the charter. A proper charter amendment was put forth and was voted on by the people and should be legal and binding except for some federal judge. I’m firmly convinced that Hughes went out of his way to make that ruling because one of the lawyers on the case was the relative of one of his good buddies. Besides, why in the hell is a federal judge ruling on state law – he should defer to the Texas Supreme court.

    Anyone besides me find it interesting that a lawyer named Hittner filed in the Southern District of Texas rather than state court?

  9. Keep in mind it was the COH, not ATS that initiated the entire federal suit, which opened the door to give ATS standing to challenge the election. If the city truly wanted to defend the vote they would have waited for ATS to get a local voter as a stooge and file suit in district court which is the proper venue and would have been more favorable. State courts typically give the voter a lot of leeway on issues like this. The evidence that Parker planned this from the start is getting more clear by the minute. I called a few council member offices today and it looks like the council is scrambling to distance themselves from this. They are basically saying the mayor went rogue and the council was just as surprised as everyone else by the announcement, I don’t believe that for a minute. They also are telling people about the appeal without telling them, as I brought up to her that this isn’t an appeal but a request to judge hughes to get permission to appeal which likely won’t happen.

  10. JJ says:

    I, too, trust not a thing that Mayor Parker says or does. You all may be completely right about the tactics here. I am just trying to be true to the law.

    The Kubosh thing was specifically worded to be about overturning an ordinance, Judge Hughes goes into that, it is clear he should have used the referendum. I agree with Ron that there is a line between ordinances and “charter stuff” that at times would be hard to draw — but that wasn’t the case here. I personally thing “charter stuff” is how many council members, strong mayor or not, city manager, term limits, how often elections are, you know, fundamental stuff. See the US Constitution. It don’t think it is for red light cameras, or no speed limits below 45 mph, or no McDonalds signs higher than 40 feet, or hours for bars to close, or number of parking spaces per square foot of restaurant space. I don’t think the concept is too hard to apply. One rule I’d have so as to not render the charter amendment process meaningless is to require a “broader” or “fundamental” purpose. Again, Ron, I admit there will be close cases, but that isn’t a good reason to abandon referendum.

    Federal judges rule all the time in cases with a local resident (city) and an out of stater (ATS) — that “diversity” jurisdiction is a fundamental part of our federal court system. On rare occasion, a federal judge certifies to the local Sup Ct a question, but 99% of the time they just rule. A big % of federal court cases are interpreting state law, just look it up. And Hughes followed Texas state precedent, which he cites, or it is in the briefs, which someone posted on line. So I disagree that a state court would rule differently. Go read the College Station ruling from the last two years.

    I totally disagree re Hughes’ bias in favor of Hittner’s kid. I have no idea if they are friends or not. What I know is that while Hughes rulings have been all over the place over the 25+ years, my best guess is that he personally is very against the cameras and had to overcome that, also he is very in favor of the people ruling (he is as far from a liberal, progressive, government can run things the best, person), he is suspicious of government. What he did here was require that the rules be followed. That is, in my opinion, the absolute top priority of the courts. It seems like a waste of time to some, and I understand that, but I am one of those who think that rules = civilization. Every time I see Kubosh he seems like a bully to me, someone not willing to talk calmly, be rational, or have anything go any other way than how he wants it. (and, remember, I do NOT have a good impression of this Mayor, so it ain’t me just playing favorites here)

    I don’t recall the ins and outs of interlocutory appeals, but I am totally with you all about Hughes should let the appeal go to the 5th Circuit. It is evidence of (bad) motives if he does not and I will eat crow. I’d be happy to see the appeals court reasoning.

  11. byron schirmbeck says:

    I believe a state court would have had a different outcome, Texas law has been that charter amendments and other elections of the people always lean towards the expressed will of the voter. While there is certainly an argument that the petition was a referendum and not a charter amendment there is a valid argument for the other side, with precedents for that as well. You can’t look at College Station for several reasons. It wasn’t a court of record. It meant nothing, legally speaking. And it wasn’t a judges decision. The judge told CS and ATS to work it out in mediation, the judge merely accepted what the city and ATS worked out. Which is probably what would have happened if COH sat back and waited for ATS to file in state court for breach of contract. Besides, if you really want to look at CS, let’s do that. Despite not accepting the ordinance after the election the city turned off the cameras and they were removed. I would be fine with that outcome at this point. Plus the long serving mayor was ousted the next election, I think that is probably a vision of what will happen in Houston.

    So far as Hughes, I see nothing that would indicate he was against the cameras. In fact, the only statements he made on the issue we can look at would suggest he likes them. He said;

    “So, the essence of the popular revolt was people in Houston want to run red lights,” Judge Hughes said on November 26, according to the record. “I mean, the highway department has cameras up and down the freeways and on some side streets.”

    That sounds anti camera? Hughes has worked with Hittner in the same court for 25 years. They were both appointed within 6 months of each other. In fact, Hittner was originally assigned the case and had to recuse himself. That’s good enough to me to suggest they have a relationship.

  12. Paul Kubosh says:

    Bully? I have been called many things. That is the first time I have been called a bully.

  13. LOL! it’s OK Paul, JJ’s allright. Bully is a lot better than other things I have heard thrown your way.

  14. Another interesting article. Why don’t they use the 4 months opt out clause now? Instead they are talking about another referendum after the contract runs out in 2014. This clinches it. COH took a dive.

    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.

    Feldman does not second-guess the strategy he chose. ATS believes, according to Feldman, that the termination for convenience clause was removed by an amendment to the contract. In addition, merely invoking termination for convenience could undermine the city’s primary claim that the contract was voided by the election, Feldman explained.

    The reason the city is not exercising its right to termination for convenience now, Feldman said, is that it would expose the city to nearly a year’s worth of damages.

    Read more:

  15. Ron in Houston says:

    LOL – If getting things on the ballot so that folk can have some say in what happens in their city is bullying – then perhaps Paul should be a bigger bully.

  16. Memorial Momma says:

    Thanks for the analysis JJ – very well written!

    To Mr. Kubosh, I’d ask him which department the City should lay another 150 workers off from so that Houston can pay off the remainder of the contract and shut down the Program?

    To Mr. Schirmbeck, isn’t Baytown involved in the same lawsuit but in State court? Has the Court ruled yet? In the event the ruling comes down the same way, what do you think the city will do?

  17. byron schirmbeck says:

    Different set of circumstances, we did an initiative for a new ordinance that did not ban the cameras, just took the money out of it by requiring a police officer to witness the violation at the time and location of the violation. ATS turned off the cameras after the revenue dropped. Baytown is also different because we had a much higher % go against the cameras, about 60/40 and the city has put up a vigorous defense instead of trying to take a dive to get the cameras back on. I don’t see Baytown putting the cameras back on if things do go against the vote.

  18. Memorial Momma says:

    I’m kind of surprised at all the “experts” who are finding fault with the Judge’s order in Houston. This is a Republican federal judge, appointed by Ronald Reagan, who basically told the council “it’s not easy doing the right thing; but you did the wrong thing”

    I don’t know enough about the Baytown case… but I do understand it’s in a more “friendly” venue in State court. My question then becomes, if the State judge (elected) rules AGAINST Baytown… who or what will the anti-camera folks blame then?

  19. byron schirmbeck says:

    Who appointed the judge or what his party affiliation has nothing to do with whether or not he made a bad decision. There are very valid arguments the city did not put up a proper defense and that the judge did not make the correct ruling. no one to “blame” for anything. Who will the pro camera folks blame if the judge’s ruling is vacated on appeal? Will they come back and tell us it was the right thing to do? hopefully COH and Baytown will abide by the will of the voters that clearly said they don’t want the cameras. If they don’t we will have to explore other options. I would still see losing a court case but getting rid of the cameras as a victory.

  20. Memorial Momma says:

    Mr. Schirmbeck, you’ve got a level-headed and honest approach to this issue. I can only assume you’re not a traffic ticket defense lawyer; just someone who doesn’t like the cameras.

    Much better than a snake-oil salesman ranting and raving about “scameras” and preferring to lay off mothers, fathers, and breadwinners so he can make even MORE money defending criminals who break the law. All this from someone who doesn’t even live in Houston. Disgusting.

    While I’m glad the cameras are back on in Houston, I wish you all the best in your efforts!

  21. byron schirmbeck says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Funny thing is I thought the cameras were probably OK until I saw the abuse and corruption in the system. You are right, I am not a ticket attorney, and have no financial interest one way or the other, other than the fact that our local tax dollars were being drained from our town and sent to Arizona. I can tell you I know the Kuboshes personally because of our similar efforts and I have seen nothing to suggest to me anything other than they have a sincere principled objection to the red light cameras.

  22. Tickets are being issued again. What a dark day.

    I would like to remind everyone that Camera notices of violations are civil, not criminal and state law specifically prohibits any city or contractor from reporting failure to pay to your credit, no warrant will be issued for your arrest, and it will not go on your license or insurance. Harris county is still refusing to block registrations for outstanding tickets. If you don’t pay, the cameras go away.

  23. Think about it, if the mayor had really heard the voice of the voters and wanted to uphold their will why did they rush to start issuing the tickets again? ATS wanted an answer by the end of the month. Why isn’t she directing HPD to use their discretion on issuing tickets to only put out a minimal amount? Knowing that longer yellow lights reduce tickets by 90% and make the streets safer why isn’t she doing that? All of that can be done without breaking the contract and would cut into ATS’s pocket. Instead, they are talking about working with ATS to move the cameras to more profitable locations. Does that sound like someone fighting to get rid of the cameras? At least come out and stop the subterfuge. Just tell us you are just going to hose us over and stop acting like you want to figure out how to uphold the vote.

  24. Memorial Momma says:

    I thought today’s Chronicle really spelled it out well in their opinion page

    I agree with you that every reasonable step should be considered; increasing yellow times first and foremost. But to take the position that these cameras are a “tax” or a “scam” when anybody who obeys the law can avoid the fines seems mistaken. It’s not the way I’d choose to teach my children.

    In your situation Mr. Schirmbeck, I value your willingness to take a stand that may cost your city some money, because you’re at least a taxpayer.

    Mr. Kubosh and his brothers however, who don’t even live in my city, want me to bear a greater tax burden so their lucrative traffic ticket defense business can prosper.

    You say “they have a sincere principled objection to the red light cameras” – but you would at least agree that just like the Arizona company; the Kuboshes have a $ERIOU$ interest in seeing the cameras go away. Let’s not pretend they don’t

  25. Obeying the law doesn’t mean you won’t get a notice of violation of the city ordinance. Innocent people and people who weren’t even in the vehicle get ticketed every day. The cameras ticket the owner, not the driver. There are plenty of other examples of how people that were obeying the law and did nothing wrong got tickets. One recent example is where ATS ticketed several vehicles in a funeral procession with a police escort blocking traffic clearly visibile in the video, this made it past the ATS screeners, and the local PD who supposedly reviews the video to verify there had been violations. Now, even if you want to say that was just an isolated incident or an honest mistake, when the people got the notices they contacted ATS and they refused to throw out the tickets! It wasn’t until the media got involved that they reversed the tickets. So how many of these types of examples are there that we don’t hear about? How can anyone support a program that actions like this are not only tolerated but profited from!

    Kubosh can defend himself, but the idea manufactured by ATS for the election that he is only doing this because the cameras cost him money seems pretty shaky to me. How much money does he supposedly lose? Is that more than the hundreds of thousands he and his family spent, not to mention their time and effort? You can’t hardly get ahold of him because he is in court all day long, I have a hard time seeing a ticket attorney sitting around and doing nothing because of the cameras. There are still thousands and thousands of speeding tickets, officer initiated red light running tickets and others to keep them busy.

    The attorney with a financial interest in the cameras that makes me nauseous is Jim Adler, the Texas hammer, he came out supporting the cameras, the TV attorney who makes millions off of accidents like the ones that camera causes wants to see the cameras stay. What does that say?

  26. Memorial Momma says:

    First of all, the whole “I wasn’t driving my car” excuse is a load of horse hooey. If my daughter were to borrow my car, and she received a camera ticket or got in an accident (both of which I’m ultimately going to be responsible for), then she’s no longer going to get to borrow my car; period.

    It comes down to that Byron – responsibility. Do we teach our children that they should stop at red lights, stop signs, and the like? Should the next generation be told to respect the law; whether the law says “don’t run red lights” or the law says “submit your petition within 45 days”?

    There’s a lot of hypocrisy floating around this issue, and probably on both sides. But what seems like years and years of watching the Kubosh boys go on TV and spew their nonsense makes my blood boil. They do not even live in this City, but want us taxpayers to foot the $20million bill to break our contract.

    As far as the funeral procession issue… that’s horrible. I’m not trying to hold up the camera company as being “holier than thou” – but if 1,000 tickets per day are being issued in Houston, it’s not surprising you can find a handful that are just plain wrong. But let’s not toss the entire program b/c it can be made better.

    The fact is Byron, wouldn’t you prefer the cops in your city to be spending their time and resources on higher-priority issues than guarding troubled intersections? Like Houston, Baytown has it’s fair share or assaults, drug problems, murders, etc… I’m not saying the cameras are a solution; but there is absolutely NO way you can argue that they’re not a force-multiplier (I believe that’s the term) for our policemen and women.

    Should the City of Houston simply suck it up, finish out the remaining few years of the contract, and THEN let the people decide whether to renew it or not? In my mind, that’s the fair way out of this deal. I sure don’t want to be paying for these cameras if we’re just gonna keep them shut off.

    And for those Houstonians who constantly run the red lights? (and don’t tell me it’s not a problem, cause I see it every day) They can go to hell, and I hope they get a ticket along the way.

  27. MM I don’t want this to devolve into another one of “those” back and forths. I respect your view, but these issues were litigated by both sides during the election and the people had a chance to decide and they said no to the cameras. That should be the end of it. I would just say I do not condone running red lights or breaking the law in anyway. As to your question, I would rather cops interact with offenders face to face instead of mailing a ticket to them weeks later. If you ask a patrol officer, I have and I know many and have them in my family, they will tell you one of the most effective tools they have for crime prevention is a traffic stop. They can look for other signs of criminal activity during a stop like outstanding warrants, weapons, drugs, intoxication etc. and actually take those criminals off the streets. The cameras have never taken one of those criminals off the streets.

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