After nearly two hours of debate, Houston City Council voted to turn off the red light cameras dotting 70 city intersections and to repeal the ordinance that set them up.
According to the non-binding resolution passed Wednesday, the cameras were to be turned off at 12:01 p.m. Wednesday and will be taken down by camera vendor American Traffic Solutions within 435 days of a judge declaring their removal legal. The resolution also gives city attorney David Feldman the authority to negotiate a "reasonable settlement" with ATS or proceed to litigation.
The votes put an end to nearly a year of legal wrangling after the cameras were voted down at the polls in a referendum last November. In June a federal judge determined that referendum vote to be invalid, and the cameras were turned back on and began issuing tickets once again on July 24.
"I have 35 years as a trial lawyer, and if I thought the city had significant exposure, I would say so," city attorney David Feldman said.
Though Mayor Annise Parker has the authority to turn off the cameras without council approval, the non-binding resolution was meant to be a gesture of support from members that Feldman said would help him in negotiating a settlement.
"If ATS believes there is a way to end-run around city council, they have no motivation to negotiate," Parker said.
Feldman and ATS met with mediators for 21 hours over the weekend but are reportedly far from a settlement. ATS has suggested that the cost of Houston's breach of contract could be as much as $25 million, though Feldman disputes that.
"I have 35 years as a trial lawyer, and if I thought the city had significant exposure, I would say so," Feldman said.
Afterwards, the council voted separately to repeal parts of Article XIX which allowed the red light cameras to operate from the Code of Ordinances.
With council member Oliver Pennington absent, the only vote against the resolution and camera repeal was cast by city council member Sue Lovell, who expressed her discomfort at approving a blank check for the city to potentially pay damages, especially while Houston is laying off workers due to a budget shortage. Lovell also expressed a safety concerns, based on the 9,000 red light tickets issued in the 30 days since the cameras were re-introduced.
"We walk away with no plan to keep intersections safe," Lovell said. She subsequently introduced an amendment to keep the cameras on until the end of 2013 and avoid the litigation. That amendment was voted down almost unanimously.
However the vote may not entirely end the controversy. ATS told the Houston Chronicle they plan to fight the turn-off in court and declare the council vote invalid.