Is it possible that nearly $6 million in citations generated by red light cameras were issued illegally over the past eight years in Austin?
Bryon Schirmbeck, who has led a long, lonely fight against the cameras in Texas, said the city has been unable to show it ever did an engineering study to establish the case for the cameras before they first went into operation in May 2008.
What’s at stake for the city is an average of $735,000 a year through an average of 9,800 annual citations for red light camera violations.
“So, what it would boil down to is that every single ticket Austin has ever issued has been illegal,” Schirmbeck contends. “They never had the authority from the state to issue them since they didn’t meet the statutory requirements to impose the civil penalty.”
Schirmbeck, Texas coordinator for the national Campaign for Liberty, said he can find no evidence Austin established a citizen’s advisory committee to review and make recommendations based on the engineering study to the City Council.
The study and the committee review are requirements of section 707.003 of the Texas Transportation Code, passed seven months before the Austin City Council approved a $9.7 million contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc. of Glendale, Ariz.
As of late Tuesday city transportation officials were unable to provide Watchdog with any documentation to show the city followed legal protocol before signing a contract in effect until March 19, 2018.
Schirmbeck said he also isn’t sure what would happen if the city is unable to provide proof it followed the law before completing the installation of 15 cameras at major intersections at the end of March 2009.
The Transportation Code suggests Austin would lose the authority to issue citations, but is unclear how that might work.
Schirmbeck has fought red light cameras for almost six years, having led a petition drive that forced Baytown to take down its camera system.
He helped champion a bill in the past legislative session that would have outlawed the cameras statewide, but the bill died in state Rep. Joe Pickett’s House Transportation Committee.
And while cities like Richardson, which was forced last month to suspend its red light camera program after losing a lawsuit, other Texas cities are pushing back with tens of millions of dollars in citation revenue at stake.
Schirmbeck said he has recently met with resistance when asking for public red light camera contract and performance documents to which he is entitled. Late last week in response to a detailed records request, the City of Garland denied the records pending a request to the attorney general to withhold or redact public documents, citing 10 exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act.
While Austin has responded to his requests and has provided voluminous documentation, none of it pertains to the point of Schirmbeck’s request.
In his initial Public Information Act request on July 22, Schirmbeck asked for the names of the citizens advisory committee, its agendas and minutes, the engineering report and a copy of the original contract between the city and Redflex.
The city acknowledged receipt of the request with an email on July 26 and informed Schirmbeck that because of the volume of records requests it would take 45 to 60 business days to complete his request.
Nonetheless, in 12 business days Schirmbeck received a package in the mail with paper documents and a disc containing the same information.
On that same day, Aug. 10, Schirmbeck emailed to inform the city he had received 245 pages of documents, none of which contained what he was looking for. You can peruse every page of what Schirmbeck was sent here.
City officials attempted to answer Schirmbeck with something called a pre-activation report filed with the Texas Department of Transportation. It is not an engineering report and was filed in August 2009, 15 months after the first cameras were operational.
On Aug. 15, Kristin Trevino, customer solutions coordinator for the city’s Law Department, emailed Schirmbeck that in her opinion the city had “provided all responsive information for your request.”
On Tuesday morning, Watchdog walked through the request and the chain of correspondence with Joana Perez, spokeswoman for Austin’s transportation department.
Watchdog requested that Perez attempt to locate the engineering study and any evidence that a citizens advisory committee was ever established and carried out the responsibilities designated to it by law.
Schirmbeck — and Watchdog — are still waiting.