Camera suit will cost city
MONROE - Red-light cameras can’t be banned through the initiative process but advisory votes on the subject are OK, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge ruled Jan. 19.
Judge George Bowden ruled the city of Monroe should have allowed an advisory vote on whether or not citizens want red-light cameras because the vote wouldn’t have been binding. The City Council’s decision to refuse to allow such a vote will cost it in court fines and attorney fees. The judge fined the city $10,000 and ordered it pay back the initiative sponsor’s attorney’s fees.
The city so far has spent $42,000 on legal fees associated with this lawsuit, according to public documents obtained by Tim Eyman, anti-tax initiative sponsor who is leading a statewide effort to ban the use of red-light cameras. Eyman and local group Seeds of Liberty joined together last year to collect signatures to ban the cameras in Monroe.
Eyman said he estimated Seeds of Liberty’s legal bill at about $30,000.
If the city puts an advisory vote on the ballot, it could cost between $20,000 and $25,000, depending on the number of other issues on the ballot, Snohomish County elections manager Garth Fell said. The next election is in April. The deadline to submit a ballot measure is Friday, March 2. This lawsuit, including the city’s own legal bill, could cost the city more than $100,000.
“If they hadn’t done this (legal challenge), it would’ve been zero,” Eyman said last week.
Eyman and Seeds of Liberty last year gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but the city decided instead to run its own ballot measure.
The city measure asked whether voters wanted the city to continue its contract with red-light camera company Redflex once it expires in 2013. Voters overwhelmingly said no.
Camera opponents’ initiative would have required the city to remove the cameras, reduced the fine from $124 to $20 and required a vote before cameras could go up in the future.
The judge ruled municipalities have the authority to use red-light cameras for traffic safety purposes and the issue isn’t subject to the initiative process. Bowden also ruled the section on fine reduction invalid. He did, however, uphold initiative sponsor’s right to an advisory vote.
The city has yet to decide how to respond to the ruling.
The city signed a three-year contract with Redflex and cameras are up out front Fryelands and Frank Wagner elementaries and at the intersection of U.S. 2 and North Kelsey. The contract expires next year and Mayor Robert Zimmerman told a local paper that he doesn’t think the city will renew the contract.
Eyman wants the city to find a way to get out of the current contract.
The camera system hasn’t been performing well.
The city had to void a bunch of tickets because of spelling errors on the tickets, resulting in lost revenue. The issue has been fixed, said Debbie Willis, spokeswoman for the Monroe Police Department. But not before the city had to void 1,550 tickets, at a potential loss of $192,200 if all were paid in full.
Redflex didn’t charge the city during this period, Willis said.
For 2011, Redflex billed the city about $83,600 for the cameras, while ticket revenue was about $94,000, according to the Police Department. Redflex’s cost, however, doesn’t include police officer overtime to review infractions and paying a judge to hold hearings on contested tickets at City Hall.
By STEPHANIE KOSONEN
Published Feb. 1, 2012