Today all red light cameras in Houston have been turned off after Houstonians voted them down in the last election. Many people (myself included) are happy about this, but was this really the best plan for Houston? Is this an example of why we should not have initiative and referendum in Houston? Let’s take a look:
The City of Houston receives between $7 and $10 million a year on red light cameras. Unfortunately no one knows the real amount of money we were supposed to receive because no one, including the company that is supposed to be monitoring this, knows how many tickets are issues and how people actually pay. This is not surprising considering the fact that nothing happens to you if you don’t pay your ticket. It won’t affect your car insurance, you can still register your car, and the City can’t issue an arrest warrant for failure to pay. So whether you agree with red light cameras or not, it is no doubt that the whole program was a complete disaster.
Now the City is faced with a precarious situation where they have to either cut spending (Yeah right) or find other fees to charge to recoup the money. Too bad they don’t really know how much money they actually need to find. Not only that, the City is now faced with possibly owing millions to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the camera’s manufacturer, because we still have a contract with them through 2014. Houston has already filed a federal civil lawsuit to determine how much money they will actually owe.
While many people are happy that the red light cameras were voted down, was 2010 really the best year to do it? Would it have been better to keep the cameras for a few years and take the vote closer to the end of the contract? Many opponents who feel like the cameras are against their rights would probably say that the sooner we discontinue them, the better; however, I guarantee most city council members and others faced with fixing the budget would disagree.
Houston has initiative and referendum which means that we can vote directly on certain items if enough people sign a petition to get it on the ballot. It is likely that those who got this on the ballot were more concerned with getting the cameras shut off than planning a strategic time to place this on the ballot to where it would not cost us an undetermined amount of money. This is often a criticism of this form of voting. Individuals are usually focused on one issue whereas Council Members are expected to look after every aspect of each and every issue.
So is this an example of why we should discontinue initiative and referendum in Houston? You can decide for yourself, but I like the fact that we can vote directly on issues sometimes. If we left this up to City Council, would they have ever voted down something that makes them money?
The real issue here is that City Council needs to be more observant with their big, long-term contacts such as this one. They should consider putting caveats in contracts that will allow a parting of ways if it is voted down on the ballot. The other issue here is that big programs like these (and many, many smaller programs) are put into place and then never looked at or rarely looked at again. How long did they know that they didn’t know how much money they were supposed to get from the red light cameras? If they had a system to continuously revisit these types of programs and fix them, renegotiate the contracts, and get citizen input, we might not have issues like this in the future.