From the outset, Chicago’s red-light and speed cameras were tainted with competing justifications for their existence. Were they installed to make our streets safer or just to scoop in revenue? That fundamental conflict has come back to haunt the city.
And now our city may be paying the price.
On Wednesday, a Cook County judge approved class action status for a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs want the city to return some $200 million in camera-generated fines and late fees. The city is arguing it has already resolved the underlying issue by giving 1.5 million motorists a second chance to challenge their tickets.
The ubiquitous cameras, which seem to have direct access to our wallets, would have been much more popular if people were confident they were there just to prevent accidents. Motorists who run red lights are a serious danger. Just on Thursday, a 40-year-old motorist died in Logan Square when a hit-and-run driver blew through a red light.
But a litany of complaints — yellow lights that changed too quickly, school zone citations even when students did not appear to be present, questionable speed limits, apparent equipment malfunctions — stirred widespread doubts about the city’s true intentions when it installed the cameras. Motorists also wondered if the cameras were installed at locations where they best improved public safety or had the potential to make the most money. It didn’t help that the original camera program was shrouded in scandal. The ex-CEO of Reflex Traffic Systems Inc., the city’s first camera supplier, is scheduled to be sentenced later this month for her part in a bribery conspiracy.
By all appearances, the city was in large part lured by the appeal of new revenues. That’s no way to run a government. Government always should play it straight with the people it serves.
The issue now in court is whether old citations should be nullified and the money returned because the city did not send out second notices of violations and provided a grace period of only 21 days instead of 25.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs want the money back. City lawyers argue that the plaintiffs do not dispute that they violated the law or that they got notices offering them a chance to contest the camera-issued tickets.
We don’t know how the judge will rule on the legal points. But it’s clear the city got itself into this bind by failing to be completely transparent about its motives and neglecting to put the city’s residents and their safety first.