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Poof! Hays County school zone cameras gone

By   /   September 20, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

With little discussion — except to defend its motives — the Hays County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning abruptly ended its school zone camera program.

The action, which County Judge Bert Cobb promised would not cost taxpayers a penny in penalties or fees, did not get Hays County out from under a lawsuit contending the program was from the start illegal and unconstitutional.

“The commissioners are taking the position to terminate a contract that is not a legitimate contract,” Bill Davis, a Dripping Springs attorney suing the county over the camera program, said after the vote. “They didn’t address any of the issues in my suit. And what about all of the people like me who were issued citations?”

The commissioners addressed none of it before voting unanimously to accept what Cobb said was a “mutually agreed upon termination” of a contract with American Traffic Solutions Inc.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Watchdog this afternoon, says the camera program will end Sept. 30. For the next 90 days Hays County and ATSI will work together to attempt to collect fees on all unpaid violations, the letter says.

(You can read the entire text of the letter here.)

“Hays County shall not be required to pay any penalties or fees whatsoever related to early termination of the Services Agreement,” according to the letter.

The letter does not provide any information about why the county and ATSI agreed to end the contract or how many tickets remain in the pipeline and what recourse those people might have now that the contract is voided.

Precinct 3 commissioner Will Conley, who originally proposed the contract for cameras to monitor speeds in two rural school zones, would say only that the program was more labor intensive than anticipated. He then made a motion to accept the ATSI termination letter.

SHUTTERED: Will Conley, the county commissioner who pushed hard for school zone cameras, today pulled the plug on them.

Speaking in a sometimes quavering voice, Conley, who lobbied hard for the program, insisted “our only goal was to improve school zone safety” with limited law enforcement resources.

Cobb and the commissioners worked from a letter they said had been generated by the Mesa, Ariz., company that has been under fire in Florida and Illinois. Kaufman and Smith counties tore up their contracts with ATSI after public complaints the program was a cash grab that largely benefited the company.

Watchdog sought comment Tuesday morning from the offices of Cobb, the county’s general counsel Mark Kennedy, Conley and from the legal department of ATSI.

Lon Shell, Cobb’s chief of staff, provided a copy of the letter. None of the others responded before this story was posted.

Davis said he intended to press on with his suit to force Hays County to explain how a program purporting to benefit children’s safety could have been done without a single school zone traffic study or without a single public hearing to discuss how the camera program would work.

Commissioners Court on Feb. 17, 2015, unanimously agreed to a contract that gave ATSI authority to issue $150 citations for speeding violations caught on camera and to act as a collection agency and a clearinghouse for people challenging the tickets.

Hays County has no authority to do any of those things under the Texas Transportation Code, let alone establish the program as a professional services agreement so ATSI could avoid competitive bidding, Davis’ lawsuit says.

Although he voted for the contract, Precinct 4 commissioner Ray Whisenant, whose precinct would eventually get one of the speed zone camera vans, warned at the time residents “were going to feel somewhat disenfranchised by this.”

County Tax Assessor Luanne Caraway told Watchdog earlier this week she was concerned about the burden of putting a hold on license plate renewals for delinquent violators, although she had not yet had a single request.

County constables and several county administrators had been pressed into service to make the camera program work, Cobb told the commissioners Tuesday.

Cobb did not, however, explain how Hays County got ATSI to agree not to invoke what could have been millions of dollars in penalties for early termination included in the contract.

Hays County officials also did not explain why they told the public the contract was to last two years when the language in the contract said 10 years. (You can read the entire contract here.)

The fate of those who paid and those who did not pay their citations was also not addressed on Tuesday, beyond the desire stated in the letter to collect fees on unpaid violations.

Because Hays County has not yet responded to Watchdog’s request for data, there is no way of knowing the total number of citations and revenue the camera program generated.

A Texas Public Information Act request made by a citizen showed ATS made at least $91,295 and Hays County $30,430 from at least 811 citations between November 2015 and May 2016.

After he and his wife received a “notice of violation,” from ATSI in March and unsatisfactory responses from the county, Davis filed suit on July 27 arguing the contract with ATSI constituted a new set of traffic regulations that were illegal.

A week after Watchdog contacted the principals in Hay County about the contract and the lawsuit, Cobb and Conley added an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting that resulted in killing the camera program.

“All they’ve done is try to avoid court with a decision that doesn’t resolve any of the contentions in this lawsuit,” Davis said. “I have a right to pursue that.”

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Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.