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.

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8 Responses to Red light camera petitions certified

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    expect legal action by Keep Houston Safe to follow

    Actually, this substantially chaps my back side.

    The city, for better or worse, certified this referendum. I’m sure the Keep Houston Safe folks advanced the same arguments to the City before this was certified.

    Secondly, we haven’t even had the election yet. If the polling data is correct it looks like their side is going to win.

    Finally, elections cost money which are funded by tax dollars and lawsuits cost money that are funded by our tax dollars. How about respect for the will of the people? Whatever way it’s decided how about just accepting it and getting on with other issues?

    If you ask me, Keep Houston Safe sounds like a bunch of whiny babies with way too much money to spend on lawyers.

  2. As noted in the KHOU link, CM Clutterbuck raised the same concerns as KHS about the nature of the petition effort. As I’ve said before, I don’t read the city charter this way, but I don’t see anything sinister about litigating it. I doubt the issue has ever been raised.

    The City Secretary certified the petition signatures, which simply means they got enough of them from actual Houston voters. That doesn’t address the issue of whether or not there can be a petition-driven effort to change the existing law, which is what KHS is claiming. City Council had no choice in the matter but to vote to put the referendum on the ballot.

  3. JJMB says:

    Let me sugges that the Kubosh effort is not a “referendum.” It is a petition to amend the City Charter.

    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.

    I hope a State Court throws out the Charter amendment and tells them to take the initiative route.

  4. Let’s not kid ourselves thinking that there is ever going to be ANYTHING that the voters can put on the ballot for an up or down vote on the cameras that the camera company won’t object to, no matter what it is. They don’t want a vote. In Baytown we went with an initiative for a new ordinace and the camera lawyers are making the exact same arguments about our petition. In Mukilteo, Washington the same camera company is fighting the citizens who got a petition together there with over half of the registered voters, (ok small town, but still), and they don’t even have cameras there! The council was going to vote cameras in and the people revolted and put together an initiative petition saying the city can’t put up cameras unless the people vote and approve them and then limits the ticket to no more than $20. They did the same thing there, set up a camera company funded front group, sued the city and is fighting it to the state supreme court on appeal after the judge said let the people vote. In the camera company’s view this is not something the people have the right to vote on. They have said the only options we have are voting in council members that will vote the cameras out or getting the state legislature to do it. So any feigned indignation by the camera group about the petition isn’t about what type it is, just the fact that it exists.

  5. Pingback: More on the red light camera Council vote – Off the Kuff

  6. JJMB says:

    Byron, I take your point the the camera companies are totally self-interested and will argue against a vote no matter the route taken.

    I am not motivated by being sympathetic to those companies. They got into an area where there is some strong resistance.

    In Houston, I just wish that the existing Initiative and Referendum processes were used. By using a charter amendment, we might as well just delete I&R as irrelevant. Maybe I am too tied to junior high government class and learning about I&R. I also think 15% of the recent voter turnout is an appropriate threshold for a community and that a flat 20,000 is too low for a city with 2 million plus people. Every ordinance passed in Houston has an interest group of 20k — heck, probably 200k — who hates it with a passion

    But in the end, I guess I am raising a pretty esoteric issue. Pro camera people want a high petition threshold or no way to reverse elected officials. Anti camera people want a vote and don’t care how they get there.

  7. I understand the point and I wasn’t arguing against yours. Merely the fact that we are taking their word that this actually is a referendum when that hasn’t been established. The camera company calls anything that would do away with the cameras a referendum. New language items are allowed to, by default, repeal previous ordinances when they pass. Even if, as in the Houston petition, it does not specifically say that it is a repeal of the previous ordinance. In other words, if you proposed a true referendum it would say that such and such ordinance is repealed and that is it. The Houston petition does not specifically repeal the ordinance. If it did I would most likely agree with you. In fact what KHS actually has said before is not that this is a referendum, but that it is a “referendum in disguise”. And that point has to be litigated. To give you an example, the smoking ban petition in Baytown repealed the previous smoking ordinance on the books for years, the language in the city ordinance actually specifically says it repeals the previous ordinance. Was that a referendum? If we used the definition used here by KHS and what we have been talking about it would be. The new charter amendment, in order to take effect would by it’s passage require that the previous ordinance no longer be applicable which is perfectly acceptable. From what I understand the main reason it was put on as a charter amendment instead of a new ordinance is that it would require a higher burden if a future council decided to undo it. Not to avoid the issues you mentioned. Council can attack ordinances, they can’t attack the charter. If I am correct they actually got about 30,000 signatures, the city only counts what they have to. It was the same in Baytown, our petition was certified with only 620 signautures even though we actually had well over twice that amount.

  8. Also, think about this, again, I am most familiar with Baytown so that is what I will talk about. The council approved the contract with the camera company before the actual ordinance passed, and then it was well over 30 days before we started seeing the problems with the program like the city short timing yellow lights and it was just a few weeks ago, 2 years into the program based on the city’s report to TXDOT that accidents have increased dramatically. If you asked me in the first 30 days of the ordinance whether the cameras were a good idea I probably would have said they were. There are several states that allow referrendums long after 30 days due to the fact that you can’t get all of the data on something like this in that time period and there is no case law in Texas on this issue whatsover. typical referendums that are bound by the 30 days rule are typically for something simple to understand and immediate that can’t be undone, like a contract to authorize a contract or put up a building not something as large and complex as an ongoing red light camera program. The citizens should have the right to evaluate something like this at anytime and to exercise the spirit of the referendum process which is to empower the people with the same legislative ability the city officials have if they fail to act.

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