Who should decide on the evils of red light cameras?

It would be better for Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza to ask the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting her office from collecting camera fines.

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A red light camera at an intersection in Skokie.

A red light camera sign at an intersection in Skokie.

Sun-Times file photo

Federal investigators are taking a hard look at red light camera supplier SafeSpeed and its politically connected sales reps, so we clearly see the upside of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s decision to stop collecting outstanding fines generated by the cameras.

That move alone could increase the pressure on the red light camera industry to reform its ways.

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But there’s a bigger public policy issue here, and we think Mendoza’s on the wrong side of it.

Since when is it the state comptroller’s place to use the powers of her office, according to her whims, to selectively promote or discourage decisions that have been appropriately made by other elected officials — even if that decision is to employ red light cameras?

It would be better for Mendoza to ask the state Legislature to pass a law prohibiting her office from collecting red light camera fines.

Since 2012, the comptroller has helped suburbs and towns collect overdue fines for red light camera violations by deducting the money from state income tax refunds. So if you’ve got an income tax refund of, say, $600 coming from the state but owe some suburb $100 for a traffic camera violation, Mendoza’s office will cut you a check for only $500.

In 2019 alone, Mendoza’s office collected about $11 million in red light camera violation money for 60 suburbs.

Mendoza calls the traffic camera program “broken and morally corrupt,” and not without reason.

As the Chicago Sun-Times first reported last fall, the FBI has been asking questions about red light camera contractor SafeSpeed and the relationships between the company’s sales representatives and suburban elected officials. Summit Mayor Sergio Rodriguez was interviewed by the FBI last September about his town’s SafeSpeed contract. So was an aide to McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski. The FBI also raided Tobolski’s village hall offices and those of Lyons Mayor Chris Getty, along with Getty’s insurance agency.

Charges have yet to be filed in the wide-ranging investigation, and SafeSpeed co-CEO Nikki Zollar has denied any wrongdoing by the company.

In addition to the FBI probe, national studies indicate the cameras don’t make intersections much safer; they just pull in money. The fiscally conservative organization Illinois Policy found that the devices netted $1 billion for local governments across the state between 2008 and 2018.

And that, in fact, is Mendoza’s problem with red light cameras.

“It’s more of a money angle,” she said. It’s “a system open to corruption.”

We’re inclined to agree. But we’re not convinced it’s the comptroller’s place to pick winners and losers when it comes to local public policy.

The comptroller’s office withholds income tax refunds to help municipalities collect a whole range of overdue fees and fines, including parking tickets, water and sewer bills, ordinance violations and money owed to school districts and community colleges.

In theory, Mendoza could decide — for whatever reason—not to help collect any of these debts, making her a player in all this stuff.

The role of the comptroller’s office in all this — red light camera fines or any of the rest — must be more firmly spelled out in state law. She could lead the way.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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