Staff Columnist

Cedar Rapids City Council sticks tight with traffic cameras

Cars travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids as the speed limit drops to 55 mph on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Speed cameras at the exit sign are longer being used to issue tickets, but have not yet been turned off. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cars travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids as the speed limit drops to 55 mph on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Speed cameras at the exit sign are longer being used to issue tickets, but have not yet been turned off. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

There’s been some spirited debate among locals in recent years over Cedar Rapids’ automated traffic cameras. A mere mention can rile up otherwise mild-mannered citizens.

The cameras sparked multiple court battles and have been the subject of several Statehouse skirmishes. Safety! Money grab!

But within the ranks of the Cedar Rapids City Council? Not so much. No lock horns. Only lockstep.

On Tuesday, the Council voted 8-0 for initial approval of changes to the city’s camera ordinance, giving the green light for cameras to resume fining lead-footed drivers on July 1. The appeal process has been revamped to conform to an Iowa Supreme Court Ruling, but camera placement and fines will remain the same. Cruising through the city at 12 miles per-hour over the speed limit, or more, will result in a pricey missive from Speeder Trapids.

“First and foremost, what a government needs to provide is safety,” said Council member Ashley Vanorny in a prosecutorial tone. “Traffic laws are not recommendations. They’re laws.”

Vanorny and other Council members took their stern cue from what amounted to the police department’s closing argument in the case of Cedar Rapids v. Highway Havoc. Chief Wayne Jerman led the prosecution Tuesday, arguing the installation of speed cameras on I-380’s S-curve downtown in 2010 led to a 62 percent reduction in injury-causing crashes. After legal action forced the city to stop issuing fines in 2017, speeds and accident rates accelerated, he said.

Jerman pointed to dangers facing police and first responders working at S-curve accidents. He punctuated his point with a photo of a police vehicle smashed in a November 2016 accident that killed two people. Two officers were injured, and one has not returned to duty, the chief said.

Also, money raised by new camera fines will be used to hire 10 officers, Jerman said.

Jerman has been the no-surrender Churchill of cameras since May 2017, when he convinced the council during a closed-door session to appeal a judge’s ruling against the program. The city eventually won in the Supreme Court.

So what’s a City Council to do? Side with havoc? Shun 10 new officers? As usual, they stuck with the police. Like Super Glue.

Council member Ann Poe railed on speeders’ “blatant” disregard for safety. She said ignoring speeding is akin to turning a blind eye to a convenience store holdup.

Yeah, I know, but Poe and the Council simply were in no mood for any lawbreaking.

“I feel like I’m begging, and I am, for people to slow down,” Poe said.

The few concerns raised were brushed aside.

Council Member Marty Hoeger suggested bigger warning sign telling motorists of cameras ahead. Jerman said a request for larger signs to the Iowa Department of Transportation has gone unanswered.

Council member Scott Olson asked what might happen to the money for new officers in the future if the Legislature pulls the plug on cameras or grabs bucks for the state.

“I don’t want to speculate on what might happen,” Jerman said, adding it would be handled through the budget process.

It would have been a 9-0 vote, but Mayor Brad Hart recused himself from the debate because the law firm where he works is representing camera vendor Sensys Gatso USA. He sat silently, still wearing a bright yellow safety vest he donned during a Public Works Week proclamation earlier in the meeting. It became his recusal vest. Warning, potential conflict ahead.

The city ethics board recommended Hart sit this one out over the appearance of a conflict. Hart said he sought the board’s opinion after being reminded by a colleague of his firm’s work. The reminder, he said, came after he addressed the camera program in his state of the city speech in February.

So Hart was out of action. But on traffic cameras, the city is all in.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.