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.“
Paul Kubosh warned that City Council members who vote against immediately canceling the contract would be signing their “political death warrants“ and would face the ire of thousands of residents who receive tickets during the 120-day termination phase. He said if the termination clause in the existing contract is too expensive for the city to violate, those who made the bargain should be fired.
A big first for Texas
Houston is the largest city in Texas to abolish the red-light camera system, and similar steps were taken last fall by College Station voters. The traffic monitoring systems are operating in more than 15 Texas cities, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, League City and Austin.
Meanwhile, city officials in neighboring Baytown are discussing whether they will station a police officer at each of seven camera-monitored street intersections, a requirement of a new red light camera ordinance city residents passed Tuesday.
Baytown Mayor Stephen Don Carlos said because it would be impossible to post officers at every intersection, the city will likely cease to issue tickets through the cameras.
Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman said City Council must first canvass the vote by Nov. 15 to certify the accuracy of the Proposition 3 returns – which passed with 53 percent of the vote. Afterward, the city can give notice to ATS that it will be ending a contract that has generated more than $44 million in fines and issued more than 800,000 tickets since 2006.
Ending the contract sooner, Feldman said, could make the city liable for early termination and a lawsuit. He said provisions in the state and U.S. Constitution prevent governments from killing a contract by passing a law to end it.
Benjamin Hall, a former city attorney in the administration of Mayor Bob Lanier, threw cold water on the city’s claim that it could not take the cameras down immediately.
“Those who might want the contract to stay in effect advance this argument that they have a binding agreement. … The voters have now said, this option is now legally unavailable to you,“ Hall said. “The city cannot now substitute its judgment. It must by law simply enforce that electoral vote.”
ATS president Jim Tuton would not comment on the proposition, but a company statement lauded the effort by Houston police, firefighters and medical groups which campaigned to keep the camera system.
“Now that the voters of Houston have spoken we have reached out to city officials for their guidance on the steps ahead,“ the ATS statement read.
Houston police Chief Charles McClelland, a supporter of red-light cameras, said it is premature to comment on the demise of Houston’s system. “Once we’ve reached some conclusions, I’ll discuss those outcomes,“ McClelland said.
Layoffs might be needed
Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged the referendum has exacerbated ongoing challenges with the city’s budget and noted HPD, which was the recipient of funds from the camera program, would be responsible for cutting its budget to make up for the immediate $10 million gap created by the vote.
“We’re going to try to do it in a way that does not impact public safety,” she said, although she acknowledged that furloughs or layoffs of city employees may be necessary, a position she has maintained since passing the fiscal 2011 budget with more than $70 million of unrealized revenue and spending cuts.
Parker asked citizens for patience. “We don’t want to enter a situation where we have to litigate,” she said. “We want a peaceful resolution. We understand what we have to do. We ask all the parties to give us a little space as we work through this.”