Like drivers rushing to beat a changing traffic light, both political action committees involved in the potential election to modify Baytown’s red light camera ordinance are accelerating their efforts as the final deadline to get signatures on a petition supporting the election nears.
When City Clerk Leticia Garza formally notified the Red Light Camera Coalition — the group supporting the ordinance change — that its petition fell short of the number of signatures needed to call an election, that notification started a 10-day period the group has to collect enough signatures.
The group opposing the election—Safety Cameras for a Safer Baytown — is ramping up its legal efforts to stop the petition drive.
At Thursday’s council meeting, attorney Andy Taylor alleged several irregularities in the petition effort. He said there were several cases where one person had signed the petition on behalf of another person, in violation of the law. Further, he alleged the circulators of the petition knew that, and had thus misrepresented facts in the affidavits they filed with the petitions.
Taylor said he had affidavits from one person who admitted to signing another person’s name, and from a person who said his name was signed by someone else.
Further, Taylor said, his group retained a handwriting expert to analyze the submitted petitions, which he said called into question “over a dozen more” signatures.
He also said his group had filed a request with the district attorney’s office asking for a criminal investigation into potential perjury or aggravated perjury.
Further, he filed a request with the 151st District Court in Houston asking for permission to take a deposition from Byron Schirmbeck, an organizer of the petition drive. Friday afternoon he amended that petition to seek depositions from other circulators of the petition.
Jim McGrath, a public relations consultant acting as spokesman for Safety Cameras for a Safer Baytown, said his group is continuing to pursue legal efforts to block the election, and considers the proposed ordinance to be in violation of both Texas law and the Baytown city charter.
Also on Friday, attorney Randall Kallinen, who is representing Schirmbeck, sent a letter to the district attorney’s office asking it to investigate if the efforts of the election opponents constitute a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
A spokeswoman from the district attorney’s office declined on Friday to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation into either side’s claims.
While Safety Cameras for a Safer Baytown is approaching the dispute from the direction of legal maneuvering, the Baytown Red Light Camera Coalition is trying to add to the number of signatures it has — beyond the dozen or so needed to meet the required minimum, in case more signatures are challenged.
Schirmbeck credits an unexpected source for momentum in their effort: “Since the council meeting where the camera lawyer tried to intimidate us, we’ve had a huge outpouring from the citizens of Baytown,” he said, “wanting to know where they sign. The response that we’ve gotten is overwhelming from people that want to sign the petition.”
He said he is asking people to provide their name, address and contact information on the group’s website, and one of the petition circulators will bring a petition to sign. Also, he said, an opportunity would be scheduled Sunday for people to come to a central location to sign.
The group is also asking for financial support, he said.
Both of the political action committees are required to file financial statements with the city clerk. The most recent statements were due July 15, covering the first half of the year.
During that period, the Baytown Red Light Camera Coalition reported total contributions of $220, and expenditures of $194.89.
The contributions came from three individual Baytown residents. The expenditures were for meeting expenses, gas reimbursement for driving to collect petitions, website expenses and post office box rental.
During that period Safety Cameras for a Safer Baytown reported $20,000 in contributions and $18,980 in expenditures.
The contributions were from two corporations—Forcecon Services LLC in Keller, Texas ($8,000) and Signal Electric Inc. in Kent, Washington ($12,000). Websites of both companies indicate their businesses include the installation of traffic signal equipment.
Reported expenditures were primarily for polling research and advertising expenses, with a small item for the purchase of checks.