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2 Emanuel mayoral challengers blast red-light camera program

Two prominent challengers of Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city needs to put the brakes on a troubled red-light camera program, arguing that the mayor misled the public about its safety benefits at motorists’ expense.

But while the two candidates — Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) — were happy to rail against the city’s program, Garcia apparently did not not have similar concerns last March.

That’s when he accepted a $1,500 donation from Safespeed LLC the day before casting a “yes” vote that cleared the way for the company to install a red-light camera in River Forest, records show.

River Forest officials wanted the camera installed at Harlem and Lake, but the plan also required approval from the county’s Forest Preserve District board — on which county commissioners also serve. The proposal eventually passed on a tight 6-4 vote.

On Sunday, Garcia was content to go after Emanuel for his handling of Chicago’s red-light program. And Garcia’s campaign spokeswoman, Monica Trevino, suggested that his vote for the River Forest camera was indicative of his collaborative style.

“Commissioner Garcia has built his public career on listening to people — not ignoring them,” she wrote in an email. He “simply acted responsibly in listening to one of the municipalities covered by Cook County and ratifying their actions.”

Garcia and Fioretti are both trying to exploit Emanuel’s defense of the city’s red-light camera program. They seized on the issue after a recent Chicago Tribune story refuted longstanding claims made by City Hall about the safety benefits of the cameras.

“It’s all about the money,” Garcia said Sunday during a news conference at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive, the site of a red-light camera that he says issued about 10,000 of the $100 tickets last year.

“City residents were promised a program that would deliver safer streets and provide fair funding for city services. The cameras have so far provided neither,” Garcia said. The “proliferation [of cameras] has only resulted in the pickpocketing of people.”

But Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry said Garcia shouldn’t be so quick to criticize.

“Before Commissioner Garcia can attack a program that is critical to public safety . . . he needs to explain his own questionable record on red-light cameras,” Mayberry said in an email. “With all of the tough decisions we as a city must face in the next four years, the voters deserve better from a candidate for mayor.”

Fioretti said Garcia’s embrace of red-light cameras as a campaign issue seemed opportunistic. He also accused Garcia of co-opting the issue, about which the alderman has long been outspoken.

“It’s an election year, so people want to say things,” Fioretti said of Garcia. “Even before I started this campaign, even before I thought about running for mayor, I thought red-light cameras should go.”

But Fioretti focused his ire on Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who first implemented the program. He said both mayors obfuscated the safety benefits of the cameras. And Fioretti said he has in the past requested proof that red-light cameras improve safety but “never got a clean answer.”

“We’ve been misled,” Fioretti said in a phone interview.

Data posted to the city’s website indicate that crashes at red-light camera intersections decreased 33 percent between 2005 and 2012, with a 22 percent drop in crashes that resulted in serious injury. The city’s data also indicate rear-end crashes decreased 7 percent at those intersections during that period.

But the Tribune found those claims were grossly exaggerated. In some cases, the newspaper found the number of crashes increased at certain intersections with the cameras.

The troubling findings are just the latest controversy tied to the program. Redflex, the Australian company that installed the cameras, lost its contract with the city last year amid allegations that it had paid bribes. And earlier this year, city worker John Bills was charged with soliciting favors to secure the contract for Redflex. Federal prosecutors allege Bills got a $177,000 condo, Super Bowl tickets, golf outings, a boat, his children’s school fees and even his girlfriend’s mortgage and his divorce attorney’s bill paid by Redflex.

Fioretti and Garcia did not limit their criticism to the subject of red-light cameras. Both said they were troubled by Emanuel’s speed camera program — a similar automated ticketing practice aimed at cracking down on speeders.

When Emanuel proposed the speed camera program, which was approved by the City Council, he claimed it was to protect children.

Fioretti voted against speed cameras. Garcia said there were some places where speed cameras could conceivably improve safety. But many places where speed cameras are installed aren’t frequented by pedestrians, he said.

And neither the red-light nor the speed camera program appear to be about anything more than raising revenue, Garcia said. “It doesn’t appear to be about the children. It’s hard to say it with a straight face moving forward.”

While Fioretti scheduled a Monday news conference to highlight the recent red-light camera revelations, he said their safety benefits have long been in question.

“This is a revenue source, not for safety. They don’t want to cut the revenue,” Fioretti said. “This is nothing new. We’ve been fighting this battle for a while.”