Bellingham traffic-camera initiative to stay on ballot, judge rules

BELLINGHAM — A citizen initiative to block the installation of traffic enforcement cameras can stay on the November ballot, but it will not be legally binding, a three-judge panel of the Washington Court of Appeals has ruled.

While the court ruling means that traffic camera foes may not be able to use the initiative process to force the city to drop plans for installation of the cameras, their anti-camera ballot measure will still go to the voters. The vote won’t be legally binding, but it could put powerful political pressure on the City Council and mayor if the vote is strongly negative. The city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions, approved in May 2011, can be dropped after completion of a one-year pilot program.

Among other things, the contract would obligate Bellingham to pay Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions $4,750 per month for each traffic-enforcement camera, a total of about $342,000 per year for the six cameras envisioned, according to the contract the city signed on May 6, 2011.

But traffic ticket revenues from the cameras were expected to be well over that amount, and Mayor Dan Pike and a majority of council members initially contended that the deal with ATS would provide much-needed revenue for the city while improving traffic safety. Opponents argued, among other things, that motorist reaction to the cameras would cause more accidents, and the cameras would have no way of detecting who was driving an offending car.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo told The Bellingham Herald the company was pleased by Tuesday’s ruling, calling it “a vindication of our legal position.”

“We will look forward to working with the city once they have a chance to review the judge’s ruling,” Territo added.

Pike was not immediately available for comment.

Initiative backers said they were pleased that the Appeals Court will allow their measure to go to voters, even if the vote won’t be legally binding.

Stephen Pidgeon, attorney for the group that had backed the initiative, pronounced himself “thrilled” with the Appeals Court ruling.

“The voice of Bellingham’s citizens will be heard,” Pidgeon said in an emailed statement.

The initiative measure had been intended to force Bellingham to remove any traffic-enforcement cameras, although none have yet been installed, and it would have required voter approval of any plan to re-install them. It also would have limited the fines imposed under the program to the equivalent of the lowest-cost parking ticket, currently $10.

After the Transportation Safety Coalition conducted its successful petition drive to get the initiative on the ballot, ATS went to court to seek an injunction to block the vote.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Marlin Appelwick said no injunction was necessary, since the initiative was not legally binding and therefore posed no threat of damage to ATS. In Appelwick’s view, the initiative has no legal force because it wrongfully aims to restrict the city’s authority to install traffic cameras — an authority granted to Washington cities under state law approved by the legislature.

Appelwick’s ruling partially overturned the earlier ruling by Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig in the case. Without addressing the issue of whether the initiative would have legal force if voters passed it, Uhrig had ruled that ATS had no legal standing to bring the lawsuit, and had no right to seek an injunction.

On that basis, Uhrig had ordered ATS to pay the Transportation Safety Coalition’s attorney’s fees, and added on a $10,000 fine. Appelwick overturned those penalties, finding that ATS did have standing to sue because it faced potential damage from the initiative.

Pidgeon said the initiative backers expect to ask the state Supreme Court to hear the attorney fee and penalty issue.

Initiative activist Tim Eyman, a traffic camera foe, said the political pressure that would be generated by an anti-camera vote likely will be sufficient to keep the cameras from becoming a permanent fixture in Bellingham.

Johnny Weaver, head of the Transportation Safety Coalition, agreed. He noted that some council members have said they would respect the will of voters on the cameras.

“We are going to hold them accountable,” Weaver said.

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