11th-hour changes help win support for speed camera plan

SHARE 11th-hour changes help win support for speed camera plan

Red Light cameras at the corner of 63rd & Western. Wednesday, April 18, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

It’s full speed ahead for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial plan to use cameras to catch motorists who speed near schools and parks.

Despite concerns that the plan is more about raising revenue than keeping children safe, the City Council on Wednesday approved the dramatic expansion in Chicago’s Big Brother surveillance network. The vote was 33-14.

The debate turned emotional when Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) recalled that he was run over by a car when he was 8.

“It was a traumatic experience in my life. I still remember it,” Balcer said. “People said buckle up wouldn’t work. They said why give people tickets who won’t buckle up? It has saved lives [and so will speed cameras]. We will get used to it. We will adjust to it. If people don’t want a ticket, obey the law.”

Turning to his colleagues, Balcer said, “If you don’t want the cameras, let me have them. I’ll be glad to put them in to save the lives of children.”

The fourteen “no” votes were cast by Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd); Pat Dowell (3rd); Will Burns (4th); Leslie Hairston (5th); Roderick Sawyer (6th); Sandi Jackson (7th); Michael Chandler (24th); Scott Waguespack (32nd); Nick Sposato (36th); John Arena (45th); James Cappleman (46th); Ameya Pawar (47th); Harry Osterman (48th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Hairston was the only alderman who dared to explain why during a debate in which several aldermen confess to being caught speeding or running red lights.

“We don’t have a say-so as to where the cameras go. Why don’t we? We are elected and we should have a say so. … My ward will have 90 percent coverage. The other 10 percent is a cemetery,” Hairston said.

“The last time I checked, we are still a democracy and that democracy is being chipped away. We are giving up our ability to determine what happens in our wards.”

Wednesday’s vote followed a string of mayoral concessions to accommodate aldermen fearful of a political backlash once tickets start arriving in the mailboxes of speeding motorists.

Emanuel agreed to cap the number of fixed or mobile camera locations at 300 – 60 fewer than previously planned. The city will be divided into six regions, with each having “no fewer than” 10 percent of the citywide total.

Instead of slapping motorists with a $50 fine for driving 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit near schools and parks, the fine will be reduced to $35. Those who exceed the limit by 11 mph would still face $100 fines.

Emanuel also agreed to roll back the hours cameras would operate around schools from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. And there will be two tiers of warnings to motorists – including an unlimited number during the first 30 days after cameras are installed and one more per driver after the break-in period is over.

Although officials didn’t give a specific date as to when the first cameras will become operational, Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein has promised that speed cameras will be installed slowly – beginning with a “pilot field test” of technology provided by a short list of vendors.

Klein has said he “can’t imagine” even 50 cameras “in the first year,” nor does he believe the city will ever hit the 300-location maximum.

Aldermen from across the city have argued that the mayor’s claims about protecting children are a ruse to raise sorely-needed cash. They fear a political backlash that could rival the parking meter fiasco once cameras are turned on for real.

Emanuel is well aware of the deep-seated suspicion.

“If I was going for 100 percent success on persuasion, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I understand there’s [skepticism]. I don’t accept it. It’s ascribing something to me which I know” is not true, he said.

“I’m doing this because it is a proven deterrent. It has worked successfully. And I’m limiting it just to our schools and our parks to protect our children. And it is a complement to everything else we’re doing to protect our children.”

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