Judge rules against red-light camera firm in Bellingham

  • By Jared Paben The Bellingham Herald
  • Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

BELLINGHAM — A Whatcom County Superior Court judge has denied a temporary request to keep a citywide initiative restricting traffic-enforcement cameras off the ballot.

Judge Steven Mura on Wednesday ruled that traffic camera company American Traffic Solutions hasn’t demonstrated that it will

“suffer immediate and irreparable injury” if the initiative goes to the ballot.

Arizona-based ATS said it will return to court Aug. 17 to try to get an injunction barring the initiative from the November ballot.

The parties disagreed about the impact of Wednesday’s decision.

“They got their hat handed to them,” said Randy Elmore, a member of the Transportation Safety Coalition, which backed the initiative.

“(Mura) totally stood up for the people of Bellingham against an out-of-state corporation,” said Stephen Pidgeon, Everett-based attorney for the group. “They do not have an injury right now because the voters have not voted.”

“ATS would do well to have respect for the democratic processes in the state of Washington,” he added.

The judge ruled on the merits, gutting ATS’s argument, Pidgeon said, meaning ATS will have to plead new facts at the Aug. 17 hearing.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo disagreed, saying Wednesday’s hearing was only about process.

“While there’s no question that the proponents of this initiative will attempt to proclaim victory today, the real issues will be resolved on Aug. 17,” he said. “I think we’re hopeful that the judge will agree with what judges in other Washington courts have decided.”

“It is our belief that Washington state law prevents this type of initiative from being placed on a local ballot,” he added.

The initiative would require removal of any cameras, and it would require voters approve of any plans to re-install them. It also would limit the amount of fines imposed under the program. Bellingham and ATS have signed a deal to install four red-light cameras at intersections and two speed cameras in school zones.

The City Council on July 11 voted unanimously to send the initiative to voters. On Friday, July 29, attorneys representing ATS filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative.

On Monday, the City Council held a closed-door session to discuss the case with the city attorney but took no action. The mayor said the city would remain neutral in the case, because taking any other position would pose legal liabilities for the city.

Mukilteo resident Tim Eyman, who is supporting similar anti-camera initiatives in other cities, hailed Mura’s ruling.

“It’s a really, really, huge, huge victory for the voters,” Eyman said. “Barring some miracle by the red-light-camera company, voters will get a chance to vote on the initiative in November.”

Mura delivered a ruling by writing on and scratching out portions of the motion brought by Seattle-based law firm Stoel Rives, which represents ATS.

The Transportation Safety Coalition complained it wasn’t served with legal documents, as is required. It also charged that ATS intentionally waited to file the lawsuit, giving the coalition little time to organize a defense. It was filed nearly three weeks after the council sent the initiative to voters.

Territo said it takes time to decide what action to take and put a legal case together. They attempted to get it resolved Wednesday to give people putting together the ballot and voters’ guide more time to react, he said.

When asked whether the company fears the lawsuit could prompt people to vote for the initiative who otherwise may not, he said there’s always that risk. But a majority of Bellingham citizens obey the law and agree we need to stop at red lights, and they agree that they elect the council to make these decisions, he said.

When asked what harm there is allowing the vote to occur and litigating later, Territo said they know the majority of Bellingham citizens support use of the cameras, but “just as there is a process in place for giving out a red-light camera ticket violations, there’s also a process in place for legally filing a ballot initiative.”

“This is as much about principle and precedent as it is about the actual vote,” he said.

Read the ruling

Go to http://tinyurl.com/CameraRuling.

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