Mukilteo group fighting Eyman initiative remains a mystery

MUKILTEO — A group called Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government came out of nowhere last week to oppose Tim Eyman’s red-light camera initiative.

So, exactly who makes up the group and who is paying its legal expenses?

Mukilteo resident Christine Preston is the founding member, according to a lawsuit filed to prevent Eyman’s initiative from being placed on the Nov. 2 ballot. Eyman’s initiative would require a public vote before the city could add red-light or speed zone cameras.

Preston declined requests for an interview.

Instead, Preston, in a statement vetted by her lawyer, says that she’s walked and jogged along city streets for nine years and has seen drivers run red lights and nearly run into pedestrians at intersections.

“The City Council was elected to make these decisions for Mukilteo, and the initiative sponsors want to interfere with the council’s business in order to protect red light runners,” her statement said. “I guess we will see what the judge says.”

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge next week.

Eyman contends the Arizona company that provides these red-light and speed cameras is behind Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government. He said the company American Traffic Solutions has hired the legal firm Stoel Rives in the past. And the same firm is representing Mukilteo Citizens.

George Hittner, ATS vice president for governmental relations, said in an e-mail his company is not providing financial assistance.

“American Traffic Solutions is proud to support Christine Preston and other Washingtonians who are fighting for the proven public safety impact that intersection safety cameras have had in reducing red-light runners, collisions and injuries in Washington state and across America,” Hittner wrote.

Mukilteo Citizens has caught the attention of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks political spending to make sure it complies with state law. They’re seeking more information on the group.

“We think that group of citizens should be registering and reporting as a political committee,” commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.

Mukilteo considered becoming the second city in Snohomish County to add red-light and traffic cameras. Lynnwood added the cameras three years ago, and backers say the streets are safer. Others say the city is using the cameras to make money.

Lynnwood made about $4.5 million on the cameras in 2008-09. In the first five months of this year, the city generated $2.2 million in cash from the cameras.

In May, the Mukilteo City Council agreed to hire ATS to install and operate red-light and speed-zone cameras along the Mukilteo Speedway. The council then shelved that plan after Eyman collected enough signatures to take the issue to the voters.

Last week, Preston and Mukilteo Citizens filed their lawsuit to prevent Eyman’s initiative from appearing on the ballot.

This issue has played itself out in at least one other city.

Last November, officials in College Station, Texas, removed nine red-light cameras leased to the city by ATS after voters approved a proposition calling for their removal.

A group called Keep College Station Safe formed to keep the cameras. ATS donated $20,000 to that organization and was the largest financial contributor, according The Eagle, a newspaper in the central Texas town.

Mukilteo Citizens’ lawsuit argues that Eyman’s initiative goes beyond the scope of state law by preventing the City Council from enacting city laws.

Eyman said the initiative so far is simply a proposed law, and he questioned the motivation behind the lawsuit.

“If the voters were to vote down our initiative, it would be moot,” he said. “There would be no lawsuit necessary.”

No challenge to a statewide ballot initiative has ever succeeded in stopping a public vote, said David Ammons, a spokesman for the Washington secretary of state.

Local initiatives are different, said Hugh Spitzer, a Seattle attorney who teaches state and constitutional law at the University of Washington and who has advised Mukilteo on public financing.

“There are probably some legs to this lawsuit; it’s not an open-and-shut case,” Spitzer said. “It could go either way.”

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429; ohalpert@heraldnet.com.

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