Citizens seek repeal of Iowa City's red-light camera law

Ordinance was approved in February, cameras could be up by this fall

A traffic camera at 1st Avenue NE and 10th Street NE in Cedar Rapids is surrounded by snow on Sunday, December 19, 2010.
A traffic camera at 1st Avenue NE and 10th Street NE in Cedar Rapids is surrounded by snow on Sunday, December 19, 2010. Some drivers are concerned about receiving tickets from the automated cameras during snowstorms if they slide into or through a red light at an intersection in slippery conditions. (Matt Nelson/SourceMedia Group News)

IOWA CITY – An effort to repeal Iowa City’s ordinance allowing red-light cameras is not valid, the city attorney has concluded.

One of the two organizers of the effort said they are not giving up, however, and will rework the proposal.

Their target is the ordinance a divided City Council approved in February that allows traffic-enforcement cameras to be installed in Iowa City. Cameras are not up yet, but could be this fall.

Aleksey Gurtovoy and Martha Hampel of Iowa City submitted this month an affidavit to start an initiative or referendum to limit the use of the cameras.

The difference between an initiative and a referendum is important.

An initiative proposes a measure for the City Council’s consideration.

A referendum requires the council to reconsider an existing measure. That is, it seeks a repeal. Also, the city charter says a referendum petition must be filed within 60 days of the final adoption of the measure or more than two years after adoption.

In both an initiative and a referendum, if the council does not take the requested action, the proposal goes to the public for a vote.

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, in a memorandum to City Council members released Thursday, said Gurtovoy and Hampel sought a referendum, and the deadline to ask for one has passed and therefore their affidavit is untimely.

The title of the ordinance proposed by the pair calls for the repeal of the city’s traffic-camera law, which puts it under the referendum category, Dilkes wrote.

However, they also proposed replacing the ordinance with a new chapter that would require a police officer to be present at the location of any traffic-enforcement camera and to issue the tickets.

That does not change the affidavit to an initiative, Dilkes said. Allowing that would make the referendum deadlines meaningless because a party who filed too late could add a proposed measure “that for all practical purposes would be a repeal,” she wrote.

Some initiatives require the repeal of portions of the city code, but those repeals are a coincidence or byproduct of the proposal and are different than substituting language that renders the recently enacted ordinance meaningless, Dilkes wrote.

Gurtovoy, a 35-year-old software engineer, said the process was new to him and Hampel and they will seek advice from others and reword their affidavit in an attempt to have it classified as an initiative.

They argue that red-light cameras actually increase accidents, traffic signal improvements work better, citations resulting from the use of cameras violate a person’s due process rights and the fines are essentially a regressive tax.

“It’s easy to take the increased public safety argument at face value,” Gurtovoy said.

What the two submitted to the city was basically a notice of their intent. With a valid affidavit, it would still take the signatures of at least 2,500 registered voters to require the council to take up the proposal.

Gurtovoy said they are waiting to collect signatures until they have a valid initiative.

Traffic-enforcement cameras have been a controversial topic across the nation and in Iowa, where they already are used in several cities, including Cedar Rapids.

The Iowa City Council approved them on a narrow 4-3 vote, with supporters saying the cameras would improve public safety and opponents saying the safety benefits would be minimal and the cameras and the resulting fines are a money-grab by the city.

Iowa City has only talked about ticketing for red-light violations, not speed.

The city is negotiating with a vendor to install and run the cameras, and a contract should go to the council in a month or so, transportation planner John Yapp said.If the council approves a contract, cameras may be installed by this fall, he said. About 10 intersections are under consideration.

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