By Betsy Dolan
Sugar Land’s City Council has appointed 11 members to a task force that will evaluate the future of red light cameras.
The Traffic Safety Task Force will work for about 120 days to develop a recommendation that could include elimination of Sugar Land’s red light program; modification of the program; or continuation of the program.
Members include Chairman Harvey Zinn, Ruth Barrett, Erin Williford, Anne Magoon, Mark Hudec, Mike Wong, Linda Bell Spears, D.V. Kumar, Noel Mascarenhas, Ted Siwierka and Bill Roy.
Mayor James Thompson formally asked City Manager Alan Bogard to provide the group with any information they might need. “I want to stress that this is an independent decision,” Thompson said. “All meetings will be held under the Open Meetings laws and I, as well as the entire council, will take the recommendations of this committee very seriously.”
The task force will hold their first meeting August 1 and will provide an opportunity for extensive public input throughout the process.
The creation of the task force follows a report to City Council on June 4 that determined a petition with over 3,000 signatures that called for the end of the red light camera program was invalid because the petition did not meet the requirements of the City Charter.
The petition was spearheaded by H.F. Van Der Grinten (Captain Van) and Ray Patel, long time opponents of the city’s red light camera program. Van Der Grinten had hoped the petition would ultimately put the issue to a vote in November.
At the council meeting July 16, Van Der Grinten urged the Traffic Safety Task Force to admit that the city lied about red light cameras reducing accidents and to turn the cameras off until the issue can be put to a vote by Sugar Land residents in November.
“(We) recommend that the city council accept the clearly expressed will of the people in our petition and to place the proposed amendment to the city charter on the November ballot,” Van Der Grinten said. “August 26, 2013 is the cutoff date to add it to the ballot. Time is getting short.”
Van Der Grinten and Patel are working with Byron Schirmbeck, an attorney with Texas Campaign for Liberty, who has led citizen campaigns against red light cameras in other Texas cities. Schirmbeck says that copies of emails he obtained in a Public Information Request from Sugar Land city officials prove that the City worked with a camera company attorney to obtain legal advice on how to reject the citizen’s petition weeks before it was submitted.
The petition was submitted on April 19, but an email dated April 5, 2013 from Sugar Land Assistant City Manager Steve Griffith’s office mentions attorney Andy Taylor, an election law attorney representing American Traffic Solutions which is the company contracted to operate Sugar Land’s red light cameras. In another email, city attorney Mary Ann Powell warns that while Taylor’s advice will be sought on Captain Van’s petition, “at the end of the day, this company ended up suing the city of Houston and won millions of dollars—i.e. he’s not our friend”.
“Houston and Baytown residents will remember Andy Taylor as the attorney that sued to deny votes in their cities in 2010 during their camera elections,” wrote Schirmbeck in an email to the “Star”. “It appears Sugar Land is so desperate to keep the camera money rolling in that not only will they deny their own citizens the right to vote on the issue, but they would actually strategize with an expert who might eventually sue them on how to keep cameras petitions from going to the ballot.”
The city has always maintained that the red light camera program reduces accidents. Red light cameras were installed in 2008 to expand the utilization of technology to assist the city in achieving its goal of being one of the safest cities in the country. The program is intended to improve the safety of high-volume intersections in the city.
Sugar Land currently utilizes red light cameras at four intersections – U.S. Highway 59 at Highway 6, U.S. Highway 90A at Dairy Ashford, Eldridge Road at West Airport Boulevard and Highway 6 at Lexington Boulevard.