NMA E-Newsletter #137: Houston, We Have A Problem

That iconic quote from the terrific 1995 movie Apollo 13 wasn’t exactly what astronauts Swigert, Jr. and Lovell uttered on that fateful space mission, but it persists in popular culture. And it appropriately describes the dysfunctional relationship between the City of Houston, TX and American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the hypervigilant red-light camera company that was given the boot last November by more than 340,000 Houston voters.

In the months since the public dismissal of ATS’ services, the Houston story has taken on soap opera dimensions. In sequence of actual events:

  1. A federal judge ruled that the November camera referendum did not meet city requirements, and therefore the ballot results were invalid.
  2. Houston Mayor Annise Parker declined to challenge the judge’s ruling and ordered that the cameras be turned back on.
  3. Scores of city residents complained loudly to the mayor and city council members about the reactivation of the cameras.
  4. Parker got the message from her constituents – don’t you love when democracy works as it should? – and voiced her support for permanently removing the cameras. She urged the city council to vote accordingly on a corresponding resolution.
  5. ATS pledged to take the matter to court, threatening that “a legal battle that could cost the city in excess of $20 million.”
  6. Houston City Council has, at the time of this writing, delayed action on the resolution that would ban the use of red-light cameras, perhaps deterred by ATS’ aggressiveness.

If this progression is giving you a mild headache, the pain probably doesn’t compare to the migraines that ATS executives must be feeling based on these recent developments:

  • Los Angeles waved goodbye to ATS cameras last month.
  • An ATS executive, who has since been dismissed from the company, was caught representing himself online as a local Mukilteo, WA resident – a very pro-camera resident, of course – while a petition demanding a public referendum on the use of red-light cameras was being circulated in the city.
  • There was attempted collusion with the Mukilteo mayor by the same ATS executive to head off the citizens’ petition.
  • A release of internal emails from the Lynnwood, WA police department brought to light: a) the police chief’s comments of how dependent the city is on the revenue from ATS ticket cameras, b) a police sergeant’s offer to help ATS with red-light camera marketing and lobbying efforts, and c) the deputy chief’s inquiries to ATS about job opportunities at the camera company while beginning negotiations for renewing the city’s camera contract with them.
  • A Washington Superior Court judge fined ATS $10,000 for interfering with the right of the public to petition their government. The judge’s action followed a lawsuit filed by the camera company that attempted to block grassroots efforts in the city of Bellingham to place an anti-camera initiative on the public ballot. The judge also ordered ATS to pay the legal fees of the initiative’s sponsors.
  • The Sun Sentinel in South Florida published an investigative report about the aggressive and misleading lobbying tactics used by ATS to secure more red-light camera contracts in the state.

Please pardon us if we decide not to offer a sympathetic supply of ibuprofen to the staff of American Traffic Solutions.

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