Traffic camera company loses suit in Bellingham to block city initiative

  • By Jared Paben The Bellingham Herald
  • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 5:41pm
  • Local News

BELLINGHAM — A judge’s ruling Wednesday lets the Bellingham initiative restricting traffic-enforcement cameras proceed to the November ballot, but the camera company vowed to appeal.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig ruled that camera company American Traffic Solutions hasn’t pro

ved it has suffered injury. Any harm at this point is theoretical or abstract, he said, and the company doesn’t have standing to challenge the initiative.

He denied ATS’s request for an injunction to block the initiative from the ballot.

Uhrig also awarded initiative backer Transporta

tion Safety Coalition its attorney fees, and he imposed a $10,000 fine on ATS under a state law addressing SLAPP suits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. ATS hasn’t proven it’s likely to win the case against the initiative, he ruled.

Outside the courtroom, backers cheered the ruling and rallied around Stephen Pidgeon, the attorney representing the Transportation Safety Coalition.

“Judge Uhrig’s decision was unbelievable,” Pidgeon said. “In my opinion, this is a landmark decision.”

“This is a judge who stood up for things American,” he added. “This is a judge standing up for the rights of the people.”

In May, Bellingham signed a contract with ATS to install four red-light cameras at intersections and two speed-detection cameras in school zones. The cameras haven’t been installed.

The initiative, if it passes, would require Bellingham to remove any traffic-enforcement cameras, and it would require voter approval of any plan to re-install them. It also would limit the amount of fines imposed under the program to the equivalent of the lowest-cost parking ticket, currently $10.

When Uhrig awarded a penalty and fees, Mukilteo resident and initiative activist Tim Eyman, wearing a “Let the Voters Decide” T-shirt, gasped in the courtroom and fought to restrain his excitement.

Outside the courtroom, he helped lead the cheers.

“Go, Pidgeon. Go, Pidgeon. Go, Pidgeon,” Eyman chanted as the coalition’s attorney came from the courtroom. “You were the man today.”

Eyman said the penalty “sends a clear message to ATS: Stop suing citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights.” The decision helps in the effort to qualify similar initiatives in other Washington cities, he said.

Attorney Vanessa Power, who represents ATS, argued that this wasn’t about Constitutional rights, because local initiatives are creatures of state statute. Only about a fifth of Washington cities even have initiative laws, she said. All that’s under review in this case is the subject matter of the initiative, she argued, and that’s not going to change after the election.

“This is an issue that’s clearly ripe for the court’s injunction,” she told the judge.

An ATS spokesman expressed disappointment and said the company would appeal Wednesday’s ruling.

“We’re disappointed and we believe that the law clearly states that … these issues should be handled by the Legislature and not through local elections,” said Charles Territo, “and we plan to appeal the judge’s ruling.”

The city of Bellingham, which signed the contract with ATS, has remained neutral in the legal fight. In July, the City Council voted to allow the initiative to proceed to the ballot but did not take a side on it. Mayor Dan Pike previously said that taking a side would present legal liabilities for the city.

In his oral ruling, Uhrig cited everything from the Magna Carta to the U.S. and state constitutions as supporting the rights of people to petition their governments. It’s an ancient right, he said, although it’s not without limits.

“Not every matter of public interest or concern is subject to a vote of the people,” he said. But a decent respect for the will of the people requires that they must be allowed to express their views, he said.

He had no doubts or reservations on his ruling, and if he did, he said he’d err on the side of letting the citizens vote.

After the ruling, Power said she was prepared on Wednesday to file a notice of appeal. A higher court could decide whether it wants to hear the appeal.

Time is running short, however.

County Elections Supervisor Pete Griffin said the Auditor’s Office would soon begin building the ballots for the November general election, a laborious process that takes at least two weeks. They’ll probably get started on that in about two weeks. The ballots will then go to the printer.

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