Iowa City residents continue effort to ban traffic cameras

2,500 signatures needed on petition by early April to put issue to public vote

As speed and red-light cameras continue to be debated at the Statehouse, a citizen’s group is persisting in its push to essentially ban the cameras in Iowa City.

Iowa City residents Aleksey Gurtovoy and Martha Hampel are leading an effort to try to force the City Council to either repeal the city ordinance allowing traffic-enforcement cameras or to put the matter to a public vote.

They need the signatures of at least 2,500 registered Iowa City voters by early April, which is six months after they filed an affidavit starting the petition process. Gurtovoy said this week they are approaching 1,000 signatures, and he’s optimistic they’ll get enough.

“We are getting more and more traction every day as far as people contacting us saying, how can we help,” he said.

But even if they get the necessary signatures, it’s not certain the City Council will have to act. City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes told Gurtovoy and Hampel last summer they were outside the allowable time period for reviewing the matter, and this month she said her opinion has not changed.

That could lead to a legal battle over the issue.

Although a divided City Council last February approved an ordinance allowing traffic-enforcement cameras, no cameras are up yet. The Iowa Department of Transportation has asked for more information from the city as part of a new, and more stringent, process it has for reviewing the use of cameras on state routes.

Additionally, multiple bills in the current legislative session are seeking restrictions on traffic-enforcement cameras.

In Iowa City, officials thus far are only considering red-light cameras, not speed cameras.

Gurtovoy and Hampel, however, have proposed a new city ordinance that not only would ban traffic-enforcement cameras but also drones and automatic license-plate recognition systems – unless a police officer is at the scene and personally writes a ticket for a violation.

Their effort dates back to last summer, when they twice filed with the city an affidavit to start what they said was an initiative to limit the use of the cameras.

Each time, City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the wording of their request made it a referendum.

A referendum requires the City Council to reconsider an existing measure. An initiative proposes a measure for the council’s consideration. With both, the council must either take the requested action or send the proposal to the public for a vote.

The key point for Gurtovoy and Hampel is that a referendum petition must be filed within 60 days of the final adoption of the measure or not until at least two years after adoption, while an initiative does not have a deadline. They're in between that period now.

When the pair last October filed an affidavit for the third time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa weighed in with a letter to the city arguing that what they sought was an initiative.

Dilkes said at the time that her opinion was unchanged. She said this month that remains the case, although she added that she had not looked into the issue for some time and would do so if the petition is sufficient.

Ultimately, it will be the City Council’s call on what to do, should the petition be successful. If it were to classify the request as a referendum and not an initiative, the ACLU of Iowa likely would challenge that in court, said Randall Wilson, the organization’s legal director.

“It’s something that we would consider litigation over because it speaks to so many of our issues, both in terms of process and substantive issues,” he said.

The ACLU of Iowa is always concerned about the potential for technology to be used to invade people’s privacy, Executive Director Ben Stone said. He also said that Iowa City offers an unusual opportunity for residents to directly challenge the law.While other state’s allow citizens to petition for reconsideration of a law or put it up for a public vote, he said his staff has found only one other city where this is possible in Iowa.

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