By Scott North and Rikki King Herald Writers
MONROE — City officials expect to go behind closed doors Tuesday to talk with their lawyers about a recent ruling that appears to clear a path for another advisory vote on red-light cameras.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden last week wrote a letter holding that Monroe officials erred last year when they rejected outright an initiative that would have forced a vote on the future of traffic-enforcement cameras in the city.
Bowden also found that the city’s decision to sue the initiative’s sponsors, including Mukilteo activist Tim Eyman and the Monroe-area group Seeds of Liberty, ran afoul of state prohibitions on using litigation to thwart public participation.
While Bowden found that most of Proposition 1 was legally flawed, the portion calling for annual advisory votes on cameras in Monroe was valid.
“Having secured enough valid signatures to place (that part of the initiative) on the ballot, the city’s lawsuit burdens the initiative sponsors with having to defend the right of the voters to express their opinions and weigh in on a matter that will directly affect them,” Bowden wrote.
He said the city will have to pay Seeds of Liberty’s legal expenses. A $10,000 fine also is provided for under state law.
Monroe Mayor Robert Zimmerman on Monday declined to comment until after City Council members discuss the ruling.
Council members are expected to review the ruling at Tuesday night’s meeting, Zimmerman said.
They likely will need to meet with the city attorney before taking any action or making any statements, he said.
“We are going to have some deliberation, most likely in executive session,” Zimmerman said.
Monroe voters in November lined up solidly against continuing with traffic-enforcement cameras after the city’s contract with Arizona-based Redflex, Inc., expires in 2013.
The City Council asked for the advisory vote after Seeds of Liberty and Eyman submitted their initiative, which called for the cameras to be removed until approved by voters, tickets to be reduced and advisory votes held each year.
Bowden ruled that only the advisory provision of the initiative was legal.
“We’re thrilled that the court has ruled that the citizens of Monroe will be allowed to vote and the court has sent a clear message that cities should not be using unnecessary lawsuits to deprive people of the fundamental right to vote,” said Richard Stephens, a Bellevue attorney who represented Seeds of Liberty.
Eyman was jubilant Friday when he got word of the ruling. By Monday, he already was discussing with Snohomish County election officials the steps needed to get a vote on cameras before Monroe voters in April.
At the same time, Eyman said he is hopeful that Monroe officials will consider turning the city’s legal muscle toward removing enforcement cameras from the community.
“Why don’t we just save people a lot of work and just take the cameras down now?” he asked.
Eyman believes that the city’s contract with the camera company would allow Monroe legally to reduce fines to the point that “stop loss” provisions would be triggered. Under his reading of the contract, the camera company would be on the hook to keep the program from costing the city money — meaning it would have to subsidize the undertaking.
City officials, however, say it is more complicated.
The city’s agreement with Redflex names only a few reasons the city could terminate the program and avoid breach of contract. Those mostly address what would happen if new state laws or court rulings “prohibit or substantially change” the program.
In other states, traffic-enforcement camera companies have launched multi-million dollar lawsuits against cities that ended their contracts prematurely.