American Traffic Solutions, the company that owns and operates the cameras and sensor systems used to enforce red light compliance at several Baytown intersections, filed a lawsuit against the city Thursday seeking to overturn the city’s decision to call an election on an amendment to the red light camera ordinance.
In addition to repeating previous claims the amendment to the ordinance constitutes a repeal of the ordinance and violates state code, the lawsuit also claims the city is violating the federal Voting Rights Act.
City Attorney Ignacio Ramirez defended the city in a hearing Thursday in which ATS sought a temporary restraining order against the city, according to Patti Jett, public affairs coordinator for the City of Baytown. The temporary restraining order to stop the election was not granted, she said. Another hearing has been scheduled on the matter.
In its suit, American Traffic Solutions presents several claims to justify stopping the election, including:
• A claim the amendment to the city’s red light ordinance constitutes a repeal of the ordinance. Under the city charter, there are tight time limits on how soon a petition can be presented calling for a referendum to repeal an ordinance, but not limits on when a petition can be presented to amend an ordinance. An earlier attempt to repeal the red light camera ordinance was rejected by the city on that basis.
• A claim the proposed ordinance includes a definition of “law enforcement officer” that would not allow Baytown police to enforce the law.
• A claim the proposed ordinance seeks to override state law in restricting the use of photo-enforcement equipment.
• A claim the election violates the Voting Rights Act.
The claim of violation of the Voting Rights Act is also being used in a contest to a pending election in the City of Houston regarding its red light camera program. Unlike the Baytown case, the Houston lawsuit is in federal court and was filed by a political action committee supporting red light cameras, rather than by American Traffic Solutions.
The Baytown lawsuit says the Voting Right Act violation comes from the city allowing a referendum petition outside of the 20-day window allowed by law. The suit says “no approval [from the Department of Justice] was sought (or received) to bypass the previously-approved twenty-day limitation on referendum petitions.”
Further, the suit maintains, “By permitting an unauthorized ballot proposition to be placed before the voters, the City has created a scenario whereby voters who oppose the Safety Camera Program — a group that historically tends to vote in a conservative manner — will vote in greater numbers than would otherwise have turned out for a November 2, 2010 election. This change in voting practices and procedures results in the potential for minority voting strength to be diluted through the inclusion of an unauthorized ballot measure.”
In response to a written question asking if the company had previously used the Voting Rights Act as a legal strategy to block elections, ATS Vice President for Governmental Relations and General Counsel George Hittner said, “ATS’ complaint is not based on the premise advanced in your question. ATS’ claims in this lawsuit are based on the calling of a costly and voidable election.”
In response to a written question asking if the company had any studies or other evidence supporting its contention regarding the political leanings of potential voters, Hittner provided the identical answer, “ATS’ complaint is not based on the premise advanced in your question. ATS’ claims in this lawsuit are based on the calling of a costly and voidable election.”
When asked how many of its clients the company has sued, Hittner replied, “None. However, we are required by law to file this challenge before the election occurs for the simple reason that an election contest is not available as a possible remedy after the election occurs.”
Speaking for the city, Jett said the election is still on as of this time.
She was unable to say whether the city had the legal authority to cancel the election at this time even if it chose to do so, as the state deadline for calling November elections has passed.