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George Hittner

Response from the city on the red light camera ruling

Previously, I wrote that I had asked the city about the possibility of appealing the ruling in the red light camera lawsuit. I received the following response from the Mayor’s office yesterday:

This was what’s known as an interlocutory order from the judge. As such, we are required to seek permission from the district court and the 5th circuit to appeal. We have 30 days to do that. It is still under review.

So there you have it. Here’s a definition of interlocutory order for those of you, like me, who lack a law degree. And in case you’re wondering, I still have not received an email from George Hittner.

Meanwhile, this Chron editorial urges the city to turn the cameras back on.

The city and the contractor are currently facing off in court over the terms for severing their contract, which runs through 2014. Although 53 percent of voters rejected the camera system in November and the cameras were turned off soon after, Judge Lynn Hughes issued an opinion that the election violated the city charter requirement that such challenges be mounted within 30 days of the passage of an ordinance. Although the petitioners had claimed their initiative was a city charter amendment, the judge found that in fact it was an illegal repeal of an ordinance six years after the deadline had passed.

He had critical words for Mayor Parker and City Council members who voted to schedule the election. “Presented with this mislabeling,” wrote Hughes in his opinion, “the council supinely ignored — over the voices of some of its members – their responsibility and put the proposition to the voters as an amendment to the charter.”

Even though she is a strong supporter of red-light cameras, Mayor Parker, backed by City Attorney David Feldman, had insisted that the council had an “absolute sworn duty” to put the camera ban on the ballot. If Judge Hughes is right, they were wrong.

District C Councilmember Anne Clutterbuck was the only official to vote against scheduling the election. At the time, she declared, “Items like this don’t belong in the city charter. Otherwise, we would be like California …anything we vote on at this table could be overturned by petition.” Clutterbuck says she still supports the cameras, but to turn them back on now would “be a violation of the will of the people.”

We disagree. The election violated the will of the people as expressed in the city charter. If this result stands, it will set a precedent that would allow activist groups to attempt to overturn any long-standing city ordinance they choose, in the process potentially violating contracts that could cost the city millions of dollars.

This is the crux of the matter. You have a decisive election that never should have been allowed to take place. I can’t dismiss what the voters said, but I have a hard time accepting it. CM Clutterbuck was right – this is not how we run our city. Yet I disagree with the Chron and agree with Campos that none of the people who voted on this, who thought they were deciding the cameras’ fate, gave any thought to the legal niceties. Whether we accept the result of the election or not we’re setting a precedent that I don’t like. I hate to say it, because I’d rather keep the cameras, but the best solution is likely to be a negotiated settlement with ATS. I don’t envy the Mayor and Council the decisions they have to make.

ATS wants a decision on the cameras

This is just a mess.

An Arizona firm says if City Hall agrees, it can turn Houston’s contentious red-light camera system back on by Aug. 1, eight months after voters rejected the surveillance operation in an election.

American Traffic Solutions also pledged to work for “a mutual resolution” on damages it is owed for shutting down the system before its contract with the city expired.

Otherwise, the city can expect a tough court fight as the company has hired notable litigators, including former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips.

The comments from executives including George Hittner, general counsel for American Traffic Solutions, are the first full responses by the company since Friday’s federal court ruling that nullified the November citywide vote that shut the system down.

On the one hand, you’ve got an election in which the voters rejected the cameras by a 53-47 margin. On the other hand, you’ve got a federal judge saying that election was illegal and never should have been held. (Insert my usual rant about deciding these things before the damn election.) And you’ve got the camera company saying one way or another, we’re gonna get paid. I don’t know what the next step is right now.

Several people have commented in the previous entry about the city appealing the judge’s ruling. I have not seen this point addressed, so I sent a question about that to the Mayor’s office. They have acknowledged my query but have not gotten back to me with an answer as yet. When they do, I will post an update. I also received a message on Facebook from George Hittner on Monday asking me for my email address, presumably to send me something, but I have not heard anything further from him. As with the Mayor’s office, when he does follow up with me I will post an update.

Red light cameras to be turned off Monday

This was unexpected.

This week, officials with American Traffic Solutions Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz., received a letter dated Nov. 10 from city attorney David Feldman, who reversed his previous opinion that the contract requires Houston to give ATS a 120-day notice before the cameras are switched off.

Now, Feldman informed ATS it must shut down the system at 10.a.m. Monday if the City Council canvasses the results of the Nov. 2 election when 53 percent of Houston residents voted to end use of the cameras. The Proposition 3 measure passed the same day Baytown residents passed an ordinance effectively ending the ATS red-light camera operation in that city.

George Hittner, vice president and general counsel of the Arizona-based firm, said Friday the company has many questions about the mechanics of ending Houston’s contract but it hopes to avoid a court battle.

“There are a lot of things the city and ATS has to work out contractually, but the city has asked us to turn off the cameras as of Monday morning … and we’ve agreed to that request,“ Hittner said. “The city has been a great partner with ATS, and just because there are a few things that remain to be resolved doesn’t mean we don’t want to honor the positive relations we’ve had with them the last three and a half years.“

[…]

Hittner said ATS’ contract does not have allow the city to immediately terminate the deal, as City Hall now proposes. “It’s our contention that the termination letter we received from the city is not consistent with what the city has available under the contract,“ said Hittner, a former Houston resident who unsuccessfully ran for City Council.

“Our costs were in the millions of dollars for this contract. As far as recouping our costs, we don’t think that will ever happen,“ Hittner said.

Mayor Annise Parker, who has said the Houston Police Department will lose $10 million annually in revenue if the cameras are taken down, issued a brief statement Friday afternoon on the issue: “We have indicated since the election that there are legalities to work out and this is just part of that process. Once City Council canvasses the votes for all three propositions on Monday, we will announce our next steps.”

That’s a pretty big reversal, and I wonder what was the impetus for it. I favor whatever approach minimizes the city’s costs and legal exposure. We’ll see if ATS takes its lumps and goes home or files a breach of contract suit.

Oh, and avoid Blakemore, too

We already know why you should stay away from Steven Hotze. But Allen Blakemore is the Horace and Jasper to Hotze’s Cruella de Vil, and the same warning applies to him as well. But don’t take my word for it, listen to a dissatisfied customer of Blakemore’s.

In 2005 Hotze endorsed George Hittner in a race against Anne Clutterbuck for City Council District C. Although it is a nonpartisan race, both candidates had impeccable Republican credentials for that generally Republican district. Hittner is the son of a federal judge and general counsel and vice president for governmental relations for American Traffic Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz. Clutterbuck had long served as district manager for then-U.S. Rep. Bill Archer.

But Hittner hired Blakemore as his consultant and was endorsed by Hotze. The result was a bitter campaign that, among other things, tried to tar Clutterbuck for being endorsed by the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered Caucus.

Clutterbuck and Hittner were separated by only 42 votes in the first round, but Clutterbuck won the runoff with 58 percent of the vote.

The campaign left not only Clutterbuck’s supporters angry, but Hittner as well. Now a Washington lobbyist, he says he came out of the campaign wrongly portrayed as a right-wing Republican when he is, in fact, moderate.

He pointedly says he recommends to friends who are running for office that they hire political consultant Jessica Colon, who last year faced off against Blakemore and Hotze in a special election for the state Senate.

In addition to Colon, I’d also suggest Jennifer Naedler, who is Clutterbuck’s campaign manager and who is working with Jack Christie in his race, as a better alternative for Republican candidates who don’t want to be saddled with Blakemore’s baggage. Unless Blakemore’s antics are the kind of thing you want associated with your name forever, of course. In which case, knock yourself out.

Election date set for District H

City Council has officially set the date for the District H special election. As noted in Item 42 of the Council agenda, the special election date is Saturday, May 9, which is the next uniform election date. If there are any other potential candidates out there, expect them to emerge soon.

It’s been a week of formal declarations by candidates. Jeffrey Downing made an official announcement of his intent to run for District A on Tuesday, and Ed Gonzalez and Maverick Welsh made theirs yesterday in District H. I’ve got their press releases beneath the fold. I’ve also been informed of three potential candidates in District G, one of whom I was asked not to name yet on the blog. Houtopia mentioned two of them in the comments to the earlier post, HCC Trustee Robert Mills Worsham, and attorney Oliver Pennington. I can confirm the latter’s candidacy thanks to the following message I received on Facebook from his daughter, Sarah Pennington Tropoli:

Oliver Pennington, who is a now an of counsel attorney with Fulbright and Jaworski – he has been a partner there and worked there since the 70’s – will be running for District G. Penny Butler will be his treasurer.

Tropoli mentioned that Pennington’s website, OliverPennington.com, will be up in the next few weeks. Jeff Downing also has a website in the works, but it’s not ready yet, either. Welsh’s website is MaverickWelsh.com.

We can also remove two names from consideration. In the same message to me that confirmed Pennington’s candidacy, Tropoli said “George Hittner will not be running for Council – he has accepted a job in another state”. That’s one less possibility for At Large #4. And despite my fond wishes, HCDE Trustee Roy Morales left a comment in that previous entry stating that he will not be a candidate for Houston City Council this year. Ah, well, maybe next time.

I wish I could tell you just who exactly has filed their Treasurer’s report for District H, or any other race for that matter, but according to the Houston City Secretary’s office, you have to come downtown and ask them for the list in person. They don’t give it out over the phone, and it’s not available online. I do not care for this policy, and plan to do some complaining about it.

Finally, just as a reminder to District H residents, tonight is the CIP meeting at the West End Multi Service Center on Heights Boulevard. Go see what’s in the works for the district, and scope out some hopefuls for the open seat.

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