Emanuel offers appeal for 9,000 mysterious red-light tickets

SHARE Emanuel offers appeal for 9,000 mysterious red-light tickets

Thousands of motorists issued red-light tickets during spikes at a dozen Chicago intersections will get another chance to have their violations reviewed — and offered refunds if those tickets were issued in error — under a mayoral plan unveiled Wednesday.

To restore public confidence in the red light program severely shaken by a Chicago Tribune investigation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also promising to post daily violations for each of the 352 red-light cameras installed at 174 Chicago intersections.

The daily postings will more quickly identify suspicious and unexplained spikes like those uncovered in a nearly year-long Tribune investigation of more than four million red-light tickets.

At issue are 9,000 tickets spewed out at a dozen intersections that suddenly and mysteriously generated five times their average number of violations. The motorists who received those tickets will get letters telling them of the chance for another review.

Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld outlined the plan — and an upcoming investigation by Inspector General Joe Ferguson — during a surprise appearance Wednesday before the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.

It was not well received by Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th).

Beale demanded that the city “put the brakes on the whole red-light system” until Ferguson’s investigation is completed and the city’s ongoing liability is determined.

“We’ll be protecting the integrity of the city. If something comes out that there was some type of impropriety that took place, there’s more room for disaster if we keep on down this road versus if we just put the brakes on temporarily, wait for the outcome of the investigation, then re-engage the program,” Beale said.

Beale noted that aldermen have taken considerable political heat for the red-light program that now produces $65 million in annual revenues for the cash-strapped city. That’s upwards of $500 million in the eleven years since the first camera was installed.

“If we keep on down this road, we just have room for exposure… If something comes out and this company has some type of exposure and they see a $500 million lawsuit coming their way, they’ll probably close their doors and file bankruptcy. And that will leave us, once again, holding the bag,” Beale said.

“We need to do something immediately just to protect the taxpayers because I’ll be darned if I go back to the people in my community and tell them we need to find $500 million for an error by a company that made millions of dollars off of this city.”

Scheinfeld countered that the suspicious spikes were confined to less than one-half of one percent of all the violations issued during that period.

The commissioner promised to hold Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Solutions, the fired contractor tied to a $2 million bribery scandal, responsible for any refunds. But she categorically rejected Beale’s demand to shut down the entire red-light program.

“The primary motivation behind the red-light camera program is safety. This program has been critical in reducing serious angle crashes that cause serious injury and fatality. That is our ongoing motivation and concern,” Scheinfeld said.

“It is in the interest of public safety to continue this program. But we are taking these concerns very seriously — both looking backwards … and forward to make sure we’re setting up management practices to avoid such a situation in the future where a spike occurs and we’re not aware of it or we don’t have proper documentation to explain what was causing it and to ensure that everything was operating normally.”

Southwest Side Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) was not appeased either. He’s concerned that the city’s offer of a third review would unleash an avalanche of complaints directed at Chicago aldermen seven months away from re-election.

“A natural result of this conversation today is going to be constituents hitting 50 ward offices tomorrow asking about past red-light camera violations,” Quinn said.

“We wouldn’t be able to determine whether or not they fall into this [9,000 ticket] bucket. But, we’d like to have an answer for them.”

Scheinfeld said the city’s Department of Finance has not yet determined how the appeals process would work.

“I would ask that people are patient as the Department of Finance works quickly to make that information and specifics available to the public so people have a clear path forward,” she said.

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) questioned why the additional review was confined to only 12 of 174 red-light camera intersections.

“What specific statistical data will you use to make that cut-off? … We’re only talking about 12 intersections. Is there a potential that this expands to other intersections? … Shouldn’t that be applied to, in theory, any intersection and any camera?” Ervin said.

Scheinfeld replied: “If we find in that past data that there are similar spikes of this magnitude, then yes, I would recommend that we offer that same opportunity to people…. It would be for anyone who was issued a violation during that period when there was a spike in activity.”

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