Monroe mayor says it’s unlikely traffic cameras will continue after contract expires

MONROE — Monroe’s mayor now says there is “zero” likelihood that the city will continue to use traffic-enforcement cameras after 2013.

Meanwhile, officials already have quietly scaled back the program, which new numbers show has been losing money for months.

Critics have been calling for Monroe to dump the cameras now, but Mayor Robert Zimmerman on Wednesday said that moving too quickly could make the city vulnerable to more expensive litigation.

City officials are waiting to meet with legal counsel before responding to a judge’s ruling last week that the city mishandled an initiative aimed at eliminating the camera program. That discussion now is expected to take place in early February.

“Because this is a matter of potential litigation, council was not able to have any discussion (Tuesday) night, because we’re required to have our lawyer present,” he said.

He expects there to be some confusion over how the ruling relates to recent traffic-enforcement camera rulings in other cities.

The city must move slowly because the contract with Redflex Traffic Systems is legally binding, Zimmerman said. If the city arbitrarily breaks the agreement, the cost of that decision “has the potential of being millions,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the city is wed to cameras.

In late November, city and police officials agreed they should back off on plans to install more.

Monroe uses enforcement-cameras to catch red-light runners at one city intersection and speeders in two school zones.

The city’s original 2007 agreement with the vendor also included posting red-light cameras at the intersection of U.S. 2 and Chain Lake Road.

The cameras weren’t installed at the same time as the others because the intersection was under construction.

In the meantime, Mukilteo activist Tim Eyman and the Monroe-area group Seeds of Liberty submitted an initiative calling for all the cameras to be removed until approved by voters. They also wanted ticket amounts reduced and advisory votes on cameras to be held each year as long as cameras were in Monroe.

The city challenged the initiative in court, claiming it wasn’t legally sound. At the same time, the city put its own measure on the ballot, asking voters if the camera program should end when the contract expires in 2013.

After voters made clear they don’t want the camera contract extended, Zimmerman said he asked Police Chief Tim Quenzer to see if Redflex would agree to “delay or permanently postpone” the Chain Lake cameras until legal and political uncertainty about the devices is resolved around the state.

“It really comes down to the fact that we have an issue that even today isn’t completely decided, either by the courts or by the voters,” Zimmerman said.

Redflex agreed, and the city was appreciative, he said.

“I think the advisory vote was very telling to Redflex, and I think it is very telling to Redflex that the likelihood of the contract being extended in 2013 would be zero,” he said.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden last week ruled that the city shouldn’t have rejected the anti-camera initiative submitted by activists. Bowden wrote that most of the initiative was legally flawed, except for the part calling for annual advisory votes.

He also ordered the city to pay the legal expenses that Seeds of Liberty incurred defending the initiative. The judge found that the city’s lawsuit violated a state ban on governments using litigation to thwart public participation. State law provides for a mandatory $10,000 fine.

The city already paid about $42,000 in legal fees in 2011 challenging the initiative, according to city documents obtained by Eyman.

Eyman estimates Monroe will owe Seeds of Liberty roughly $30,000 for its legal fees.

The ruling may force the city to run another advisory vote on cameras as early as April, Eyman said.

By his math, the cost of the lawsuit and another election will set the city back about $110,000.

“If they whine about the costs, they need to look in the mirror because it was their obstruction that caused it,” he said.

Regardless, the costs of the camera contract and the city’s legal bills so far have eclipsed revenue collected from tickets.

The city’s monthly bill to operate the cameras is supposed to be about $29,000, according to numbers provided by police spokeswoman Debbie Willis. That doesn’t include the cost of paying for a judge to hold court for contested tickets or for police officers’ time spent reviewing videos of alleged violations.

Ticket revenues from the first few months of the program were lower than anticipated. Not all of the cameras were live, and school wasn’t in session in some months.

Police also canceled hundreds of tickets because of printing errors on documents mailed by Redflex.

Because of the printing errors and other issues, the company billed the city $83,600 in 2011, according to police department data.

By the end of the year, ticket revenue from the cameras amounted to just under $95,000.

Including legal expenses, that means the city could be out about $100,000 so far since the cameras came to town.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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