Iowa City moves toward repealing red-light camera ordinance

Council appears likely to repeal earlier ordinance allowing cameras; issue could resurface in two years

Tom Markus, City Manager, Iowa City
Tom Markus, City Manager, Iowa City

Iowa City Council members indicated Tuesday night they would put a stop to plans to install red-light cameras in town – at least for now.

Meeting in a work session, no City Council member voiced objections to a recommendation from city staffers that the ordinance allowing traffic-enforcement cameras, like red-light and speed cameras, be repealed.

The move comes in the face of a petition that sought to force the council to either ban the cameras, along with drones and automatic license plate readers when a peace officer at the scene does not write the ticket, or let voters decide the issue in a referendum.

The City Council voted 4-3 to in February 2012 in favor of an ordinance allowing traffic-enforcement cameras.

Iowa City residents Martha Hampel and Aleksey Gurtovoy later started the petition process. A petition was declared valid last week, but City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, City Manager Tom Markus and other city officials offered the surprising recommendation that the camera ordinance be repealed and the other parts of the ordinance proposed in the petition be approved.

Their reasoning was that the city has not installed any cameras yet and probably wouldn’t until next year as it waits for the state to create rules on their use. The City Council can take up the issue again two years after the ordinance is repealed, at which time the guidelines and political fate of cameras should be clearer.

“Referendum or not, the state is looking at it, and at some point will tell the cities what they can do,” said Mayor Matt Hayek, a supporter of red-light cameras. “It renders our proceeding with something like that of dubious value.”

But the city’s action may not be totally satisfactory to opponents.

Rita Bettis, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which supported the petition effort, wrote a letter to the City Council this week saying she disagrees with Dilkes’ interpretation of the validity of the portion of the petition dealing with the traffic-enforcement cameras. She also questioned the city’s planned use of license plate readers to identify parking violations.

Dilkes said the traffic camera part of the ordinance proposed in the petition is requesting a referendum (something for the council to reconsider) and the timeline for reviewing that has passed.

The sections on drones and license plates readers are an initiative (something new to be considered) and are valid, she said.

Bettis, who did not immediately return a phone message Tuesday, wrote that the City Charter does not contemplate a hybrid initiative-referendum and the proposed ordinance must be wholly one or the other. In her opinion, it’s an initiative.

Dilkes said that would render the referendum process meaningless because someone would only need to add provisions to a proposal seeking to repeal something in order to bypass the deadlines that go with a referendum.

Bettis also took issue with Dilkes’ opinion that “peace officer” includes parking enforcement attendants. The petitioners’ proposal says a peace officer must be present to write a ticket. The city’s plans for using license plate readers for parking violations would include staff placing tickets on vehicles.

Bettis argued that city and state law considers peace officers to be sworn law enforcement officers. But Dilkes countered that the laws include officers authorized to regulate parking violations in the definition of “peace officer.”An ordinance is expected to be before the City Council at its next meeting. 

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