The Red-Light Camera Circus
Be sure to check out all our previous coverage of the red light camera battle.
The city secretary adjusts her spectacles and looks down at her speakers list — number 17 is up next — and the crowd packed into the sweaty Houston City Hall chambers starts to shift to their feet. Suited Republicans, scraggly-haired hippies and sign-clutching members of the National Black United Front have been standing and sitting in unison for the past hour, as if they're playing Simon Says with someone who knows just two commands. Mayor Annise Parker has warned that cheering and clapping will result in a swift kick from chambers, so they silently stand to show their support instead.
Most of the crowd is here because of number 17 — "Mr. Paul Kubosh," the secretary reads aloud slowly. The name carries the power of a curse word to most of city council, but especially to Mayor Parker, who looks warily annoyed. This man, along with the two Kuboshes following him on the public speakers' list, have made her life extremely complicated.
Kubosh walks briskly to the podium. He signed up to speak for three minutes, but like the 38 other people listed to talk about red-light cameras, was only granted one. Kubosh plants his palms on the podium and leans forward toward city council , his gray suit stretched across his back. It's stained with sweat from the protest he led outside City Hall just before the meeting started.
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. Charlotte Mens Basketball
TicketsSat., Jan. 28, 7:00pm
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 10AM-3PM
TicketsMon., Jan. 30, 10:00am
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 3PM-8PM
TicketsMon., Jan. 30, 3:00pm
Super Bowl Opening Night Fueled By Gatorade
TicketsMon., Jan. 30, 7:00pm
"Let me make sure that you folks understand," Kubosh says in a low growl. "This will never go away." It's August 2, 2011, and Kubosh is talking about the red-light camera issue, one he and his brothers have been fighting since long before the cameras went up in 2006.
The Kuboshes thought the fight was over in November, when they led a petition drive that ended with 52 percent of the city voting down the cameras. Parker unilaterally turned the cameras off, only to be greeted by a $25 million threat from the camera vendor American Traffic Solutions for killing its contract years before its end. The scare tactic worked on the mayor, who used to be city controller. With her mind on revenue for her cash-strapped city, she flipped sides, and on came the hated cameras — until finally, she defected again and turned them off.
Now, the city is headed for a high-stakes court fight (it's already had its PR disaster) and nobody really knows where the mayor stands. About 186,000 Houstonians of all colors and political persuasions are livid that their vote didn't count. Just as many wonder: However did we get to this point ?
Walking through the periwinkle bail bonding office near downtown's municipal courts, you're bound to bump into a Kubosh. The three ample brothers, plus their diminutive, sunny mother, plus Paul's children, who range in age from 8 to 15, make a consistently full house.
But the social hub is the office of Michael Kubosh, the bail bondsman and jokester of the family. Michael has short, snowy hair and a choppy white beard. Suspenders loyally hold up his pants, and he speaks with a deep, buttery lilt, like he's at a never-ending audition for a role in a spaghetti Western. Today, he's being temporarily kicked out of his mahogany office with hanging moose heads by his brother Paul, whose office next door is apparently too disarrayed to host visitors.
Paul Kubosh, a gentle-mannered Texan until he gets riled up, has always loved public speaking. It's why he became a traffic attorney: Considering Houston drivers, he knew he'd always have an audience. Back in 1995, Kubosh heard that red-light camera companies were trying to bring the cameras to Texas. He and his brothers took a trip to San Diego three years later out to see how the program there was working. The Kuboshes were shocked.
"They just went out and cut the yellows down, all over the place," Kubosh said. Shorter yellow times mean more red-light running — which also means more tickets. A Texas Transportation Institute study that would come out in 2004 found that adding just one second to a yellow light decreased red-light camera violations by 53 percent. Shortening the yellow by the same amount resulted in a 110 percent increase in violations. "We started seeing what we believed was the sinister side of it," Kubosh said. "We started realizing it wasn't about safety."
Kubosh became obsessed with keeping the cameras out of Texas. He and his brothers testified against the cameras in Austin for years, claiming that simple engineering changes would make traffic safer. Members of the Legislature seemed to agree and voted automated traffic enforcement down each time. But in 2003, in an obscure part of a transportation bill, one word slipped past the Kuboshes' watchful eyes. A representative amended the bill to allow municipalities to regulate traffic civilly in addition to criminally. Just one word gave red-light cameras the green light.
Kubosh sued and tried to get a judge to declare the cameras unconstitutional, but to no avail. Then-mayor Bill White, who did not return Houston Press requests for comment, welcomed the cameras to Houston in 2006 when he signed a five-year contract with ATS.
Here's the deal, according to the 200-page monster of an agreement: Each camera costs the city at least $3,000 per month. The cameras record violations that are sent to ATS, whose workers review them to weed out the dismissible ones like legal right turns on red and police wave-throughs. ATS then sends them to the Houston Police Department, awaits its approval of the violations and mails out $75 tickets with photo evidence. No driver's license or insurance points are assessed: only a fine. To get constituents revved up for being ticketed, the contract also mandates up to $120,000 per year in public awareness campaign expenses. One of ATS's objectives, expressed in the contract: "to limit antagonism, opposition or concerns about the program."
Three years later, a House bill was brewing that sought to ban red-light cameras once and for all in Texas. If it were made into law, cities would not be able to install any more cameras or extend camera contracts after June 1, 2009. "In response," said a letter from HPD to the city secretary, "the cities of Amarillo, Arlington, Baytown, Ft. Worth, and Irving have all signed 15 to 20 year extensions with their respective vendors." White was so fond of the cameras that, with the approval of council, he voted in an ordinance that extended the contract until May 2014. The bill died, but not before Houston was locked in for three more years.
By May 2009, ATS had made more than $6.3 million from the Houston contract, according to the ordinance proposal.
"I became consumed with defeating it," Kubosh said. Instead of resorting to the courts, Kubosh and his two brothers turned to the people and started a petition for a charter amendment in February 2010. They formed Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, headquartered in a shoebox-sized room inside of the Kubosh building. Kubosh hired Craig Stewart, a skinny, bearded hippie fresh from law school, as head researcher. Stewart worked closely with another new hire: campaign manager Philip Owens, whose side-parted black hair, pinstripes and blazers make him look like he belongs on a yacht. "I'm a conservative Republican," Owens explained. "Craig is a moderate Democrat. I wouldn't say liberal..."
"I'm liberal!" Stewart interrupted defensively. Owens ignored him, as if in a gesture of forgiveness. "We absolutely are in lockstep on this issue. It's a violation of the Constitution."
Immediately after Owens got the job, he looked for someone who could rally enough people to sign a petition calling for the end to red-light cameras. He hired Ron Jackson, a dapper African-American media consultant seasoned in political campaigns. Owens took a particular interest in Jackson's long-standing relationship with the Ministers Against Crime and the Baptist Ministers Association, two local African-American organizations. "I said, 'We need to get in front of them,'" Owens said. "It's real easy when you show them the numbers."
Jackson and Owens focused on the African-American and Hispanic precincts, going door-to-door and spreading the message that the cameras weren't about safety, but rather money. Then, they hit the Republican parts of town where the cameras would be saturated. Jackson placed campaign workers outside of county courthouses, stores, concerts, parades — "everywhere there was a large amount of people," Jackson said. Kubosh even had his four kids stand in front of traffic court and collect signatures. "They thought I had child labor out there in front of the courthouse," Kubosh recalled with a laugh. "You can work your own kids." Kubosh and his organization stopped counting at 50,000 signatures, more than twice the number required to get a charter amendment on the ballot.
In late August of last year, a tense city council received what many of its members would dismissively call "that Kubosh petition." The choice was theirs, in front of the whole city of Houston and the 20,000 names on the petition, to decide whether or not to put it on the ballot.
Council member Anne Clutterbuck, an attorney, clearly did not want the petition to go as far as a vote. In her mind, the election would be illegal. (A federal judge would agree with her several months later.) When an ordinance goes into effect, citizens have only 30 days during which they can submit a referendum petition trying to overturn it. Under that city law, this petition was about six years too late. Clutterbuck cited a procedural motion to try and cancel the meeting, but Parker dismissed her attempts. This issue was going on the ballot. Though Parker supported the cameras, she also firmly believed the public would uphold them in a vote. If that happened, she'd win both ways. "I think it would not be wise to circumvent the will of a huge number of citizens who are interested in this issue," she told Clutterbuck — words that would soon come back to haunt her.
The city attorney, David Feldman, told everyone on council that they essentially had no choice but to put it on the ballot. The petition was billed as a charter amendment and fell under state statutes that trump city law. Should city council vote not to put it on the ballot, he said, the "petitioners" — that is, the Kuboshes — would likely take it to court. The city could then be on the hook for attorneys' fees as well. And ATS — well, the city would find a way to deal with them. "I agree with the Mayor," Feldman told city council in his low, measured voice. "We are in a Catch-22. No matter what we do, there is somebody out there who is going to sue us." Feldman cracked a rare, thin-lipped smile. "That's why I became city attorney."
When the floor opened for public comment, a tall, thin, suited man approached the city council members. Well-spoken and confident, the man identified himself only as Andy Taylor, an attorney. He seemed bent on persuading the city council to ignore the petition, arguing that it was both illegal and unethical. "Some people say that if the Kuboshes' petition is on the ballot, it will cause a dilution in minority voting strength," he said. A reporter in the front row, almost asleep, jerked his head up and laughed. The primarily African-American audience exchanged raised-eyebrow glances.
After Taylor laid out his legal arguments, council woman Melissa Noriega interjected. "Are you billing for this?" she asked. "You've been here a long time."
"I am," Taylor responded. "My client is Keep Houston Safe." What Taylor didn't reveal is that Keep Houston Safe is a political action committee funded almost entirely by the camera vendor ATS, and that Taylor is one of ATS's lead attorneys. (And he wasn't kidding when he claimed that some thought this was a conspiracy against minorities. Keep Houston Safe, represented by Taylor's law office, would sue the city of Houston in federal court a few days after the council meeting for violation of the 1973 Voting Rights Act: Dilution of minority voting. The case would be quickly dismissed.) ATS had officially slithered into the game.
By the time Michael Kubosh addressed the council, a clear majority seemed ready to put it on the ballot. Kubosh, a committee finance chairman for the Harris County Republican Party, was amused by Taylor's remarks. "When are Republicans worried about minority votes being diluted?" he asked the crowd.
When his time had expired, Parker leaned into her microphone, a self-assured smile on her face. "Mr. Kubosh, you and I visited before the council meeting started, and do you recall what I said to you?" she asked evenly. She didn't pause for an answer. "That I was gonna be as fair as I possibly could, but that I was gonna beat you fair and square at the ballot box on this one."
ATS is the largest red-light camera provider in the United States. According to a company spokesman, the vendor has hung more than 6,000 red-light cameras across the country. In Texas alone, ATS has red-light camera contracts with 25 cities besides Houston. One of those is nearby Baytown.
Byron Schirmbeck, a 41-year-old Internet salesman, didn't think much about the cameras when they went up in Baytown in 2008. After all, he was a law-abiding citizen, a careful driver. One day Schirmbeck made a turn while, he claimed, the light was yellow. "As I was in the middle of my turn, I saw one of the flashes go off," he said. He figured the flash was for someone else, until he got the ticket. "I took a look at it and said, something's just not right, because that light was pretty quick," Schirmbeck said. The yellow time printed on the ticket was 3.1 seconds. After some digging, Schirmbeck found the law that governs camera-monitored intersections. He was surprised to see all kinds of restrictions, adopted by a bitter House as consolation for having the cameras. One of them dictates the time a light must be yellow at a camera-monitored intersection based on the speed limit. At the one where Schirmbeck was caught, it's four seconds.
Schirmbeck figured the light was malfunctioning, so he went to the city. He didn't expect to encounter such a huge wall of resistance. "They didn't want to answer any questions about anything," he said. Schirmbeck got suspicious. He grabbed his stopwatch and hit the streets, finding other illegally short yellow lights. The city, he said, denied that they had to follow the law since they signed the ATS contract before the code went into effect. Schirmbeck was livid, demanding that the city refund tickets issued on illegally short yellow lights or face a citizen uprising that would take down the cameras. "Basically," Schirmbeck said, "they didn't believe me."
Murmurs spread of a petition drive. The city dismissed Schirmbeck's ticket for administrative reasons, but that didn't stop him. Schirmbeck kept timing that fateful yellow light, finding it lengthened at first but then shortened a couple months later. "When I caught them again, instead of lengthening the yellow lights, they illegally lowered the speed limit from 45 to 40," he said. Schirmbeck confronted the city yet again, and they replaced the original speed limit and lengthened the yellow light.
The hijinks only escalated when Schirmbeck started requesting data from the city. "What we saw was when we got them to extend the yellow light just up to the bare minimum legal time, the violations that the cameras recorded dropped from like over 1,500 to about 700. In half," Schirmbeck said. He found another disturbing trend. According to Baytown's documents, the cameras weren't recording significantly fewer violations as the program continued. "They couldn't say they were changing people's behavior because the violations weren't dropping," Schirmbeck said. "So what they did was they started sending fewer tickets to Baytown to review." ATS's rejection rate climbed from 37 percent to around 51 percent.
When Schirmbeck filed a public information request asking for billing records for the red-light camera program, he received a list of thousands of names of people who had paid their violations by check — along with their routing numbers, account numbers and check numbers. Panicked, he notified the city, which mailed out letters to everyone on the list that their banking information had been compromised. And, in another serious lapse of privacy judgment, the city referred callers to Schirmbeck. "When people would call Baytown, they would say, 'Who has my information?' They'd say, 'Well this guy Byron does. If you want to talk to him, here's his number,'" Schirmbeck said. His cell phone rang nonstop.
Schirmbeck had had enough. He started circulating a petition in September 2009 for a referendum to repeal the ordinance authorizing red-light cameras. Schirmbeck learned that once cities begin circulating petitions to end the cameras, ATS has a habit of buying Web domains called "Keep Insert-City-Here Safe" and creating cookie-cutter Web sites that look like community-led, grassroots campaign rallying for the cameras. So Schirmbeck bought KeepBaytownSafe.com and used it for his own group, Stop Baytown Red Light Cameras.
That's when Andy Taylor started showing up at city council meetings with his suit and briefcase, claiming that Schirmbeck's petition was illegal and lamenting the dilution of the minority vote. Scared, the council sided with Taylor and refused to put it on the ballot, so Schirmbeck circulated a new petition. This time, he proposed a new ordinance: That the city couldn't issue a camera ticket unless a police officer was present at the violation. The city accepted it, and the lawsuits from ATS came pouring in. According to a letter from Schirmbeck's attorney, Taylor even asked Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to open a criminal investigation against Schirmbeck for possible perjury. Schirmbeck was scared. He'd never been in trouble with the law before. So when Baytown City Attorney Ignacio Ramirez called him up with an ostensible solution, he said he listened. "'You committed perjury; it's a false affidavit,'" Schirmbeck remembers Ramirez telling him. "'But if you want to come in and do a clarifying affidavit...then you might be okay.'" Ramirez did not return a request for comment.
Schirmbeck called his lawyer, who advised him that two conflicting affidavits equaled perjury. He signed nothing, and the district attorney's office didn't touch the case.
Schirmbeck's one regret, he said, was not buying KeepHoustonSafe.com.
Mayor Parker and much of Houston's political elite believed that Proposition 3, which would allow for the continuation of red-light cameras, was headed for victory.
They had the money. Keep Houston Safe netted $1.5 million in total political contributions in 2010, according to the organization's campaign finance report. (By the way, ATS contributed $1.46 million of that total. Andy Taylor & Associates gave $34,362.) The $108,363 that Citizens Against Red Light Cameras scrounged looked laughable in comparison.
They had the name. Though Keep Houston Safe was a political action committee formed to defeat "an untimely referendum relating to the use of red-light cameras," as the group's campaign finance report states, it bears the same name as Keep Houston SAFE, a citywide public safety campaign formed in 2007 by the Houston Police Department advocating for the reduction of all crime. Whether intentionally or not, the identical names conveniently blurred the lines between ATS and HPD.
And they had the support. A quick glimpse at Keep Houston Safe's "supporters" page is a Who's Who of political power. From Mayor Parker to more than half of city council members to the Police Officers League, Houston's major players clearly agreed on which side to support. It even appeared that they had the black vote. A whole column is dedicated to the names of African-American ministers who support Keep Houston Safe.
Pastor James Nash of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church is one of the eight reverends listed as supporters. Nash, a Sunnyside native, speaks with grandfatherly, unrushed speech. Some weekends, Nash drives a bus full of kids to Austin, just to encourage them to vote and participate in government.
Nash says he remembers Assistant Police Chief Vicki King calling him when the Keep Houston Safe campaign was underway. "She said, 'Pastor Nash, you know we got this vote coming up, are you with us? It's about crime in this city, we want to make sure our city's safe.'" He told King that if the cameras were to prevent crime, he'd vote for them. After all, King and Nash, who is the secretary of Houston Ministers Against Crime, had worked together under HPD's Keep Houston SAFE program in the past.
The minister thought the cameras would monitor neighborhoods to catch criminals, like those speeding off in crime getaways. Nash said that King and the other city officials who called him never properly explained the cameras. "If you had told me that these cameras are going to be put in place for people running red lights...to me, that's not security from crime," Nash said. "I look at crime as somebody being robbed, somebody being raped, some horrific thing. Not somebody running a red light. Every day I see people run red lights."
Nash, who now says he was misled, made up his mind to vote for the cameras. The rest of Houston Ministers Against Crime were more cynical, Nash said — especially once Kubosh and company arrived. One of the Kuboshes' favorite lines was this: If this is about safety, why aren't these cameras in black neighborhoods?
Michael Kubosh loved the angle. "Yeah, I mean, you don't love the minorities?" he said, feigning surprise and remembering his speech in front of city council. "There's none on Navigation, there's none on MLK Boulevard...you don't love to save the lives of little black children too and little Spanish children? What's the matter with you?"
Council member Jolanda Jones said 99 percent of her constituents had the opposite fear. "People were concerned they would put them in black neighborhoods and spy on black people," she said. Her constituents overwhelmingly wanted the cameras out, she said, so she fought against them.
Regardless of why people disliked the cameras, Citizens Against Red Light Cameras sensed enough hate to win. Hardly anyone they encountered wanted the cameras to stay, which is why Craig Stewart thought it strange when his wife received a Facebook friend request from a name neither had ever heard, claiming he had been a victim of red-light running and had attended the same high school as Stewart's wife. Phantom requesters were popping up all over the Internet.
"The only thing they would put on there were the high schools," Stewart said. "They even had high schools that didn't even exist in that time period." Stewart found that the friend requesters always mentioned how their lives had been adversely affected by, of all things, red-light running. Their profile pictures were always images in the public domain, and the few pages they'd fan would always include Keep Houston Safe.
Those weren't the only shenanigans from the other side, said Owens. "They would send spies into the office," he said. "They'd sit out front and take pictures of license plates." No one on the Citizens Against Red Light Cameras campaign ever got a camera ticket, Owens said. The Kuboshes, of course, tried to. Paul said he and his brothers once drove up to Texas Highway 249 and FM 1960 early one morning when nobody else was out. "We ran every red-light camera up there, and we got probably 12 to 13 flashes," he said. "We never got ticketed."
Paul Kubosh said he never advocates running red lights, but not everyone who gets a ticket deserves one. "I've seen so many petty violations," he said. Those who have been ticketed include funeral mourners, said James Frazier, manager of Eternal Rest Funeral Home. After a police-escorted funeral procession about a year ago, six attendees contacted Frazier's funeral home and said they had gotten violations in the mail. Frazier didn't know what to tell them. Since some didn't live in Houston, they opted to pay the tickets. "It really upset them, real bad," Frazier said.
Though ATS had earned a number of enemies among the people, they still had power on their side. "It was a David-versus-Goliath fight, and people expected the camera company to win," said council member Jones. But come Election Day, 52 percent of Houstonians voted out the cameras. Defeated, Parker ordered them off.
Tucked in a tower office at Rice University, political scientist Robert Stein says he researches things the real world doesn't care about. That all changed when Stein and a couple of his top students started studying red-light cameras in 2008.
Craig Stewart, the researcher at Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, obtained e- mails sent among Stein and various HPD officials. (When the Press requested internal e-mails sent between some of the same members of HPD, their public information officer said HPD's system was temporarily down. A few days later, the city sent a letter to the Texas Attorney General claiming that HPD was exempt from the request as a result of ongoing litigation.)
According to e-mails Stewart received, in March 2008, Stein sent a troubling e-mail to HPD Sergeant Michael Muench. "Tim and I have reviewed 10 years worth of studies on red light camera programs," Stein wrote, referring to another researcher, "and the tentative evidence is that those studies using the weakest designs are most likely to report a reduction in side impact collisions after the installation of red light cameras." More rigorous designs, like the one used for Houston studies, "fail to detect this reduction after the installation of red light cameras," Stein wrote.
Stein's December 2008 report reflected that finding. He concluded that "the absolute number of collisions at camera-monitored approaches is not decreasing."
Later, Stein discovered a problem with his 2008 study. Stein said that HPD had failed to give his research team truckloads of police reports. "Turns out, after we issued the report, they discovered they only gave us about half the data for the period before the collisions," Stein said. "My sense is that a lot of the problem with this research is the quality of the data. We all know what a good research design looks like and no one's going to debate that...the problem is if it's garbage in, it's going to be garbage out," he said.
For his latest study, released this summer, Stein only relied on physical police reports, not HPD's compilations. Even though the data still comes from HPD, it's the only data available. "I'm much more confident about the current report in the quality of the data," Stein said. He concluded that "an approach with a camera for the full three years of our data tended to have about 28 percent fewer collisions than the baseline expectation."
(The Press conducted a mini experiment to test data consistency. Craig Stewart asked the Texas Department of Transportation — which relies solely on peace officer-submitted crash reports for its data — for the total number of crashes at the intersection of IH 610 and Westheimer from July 1, 2008, through the end of June 2009. Total crashes: 15. Our verbatim request yielded nine. A chart compiled by The Texas Tribune for the same time period showed three.)
ATS was a particular fan of Stein's conclusion that the cameras worked. "I don't think they ever offered me a bribe, but they said, 'Do you want to work on the team?'" said Stein. "I said, 'I can't work on the team! If I do, then it's not me. It's ATS.'"
Stein believes the program does increase safety. But he also thinks the public will never stand for the cameras, given the chance to vote. "No referendum has ever sustained a red light camera program," he said, adding that 12 have gone down in defeat across the country. "I think this is a case where good public policy is not always embraced by the public."
Immediately after the last red-light cameras flashed, city council began to change its talking points. "That's when they started talking about money — how much better it would be if they had that $8 million from the cameras," said council woman Jolanda Jones.
City attorney Feldman brought a suit in federal court within a couple weeks of the election, asking for a declaratory judgment about Houston's obligations to ATS in light of the election.
The Kuboshes and Jones, who is an attorney, both smelled trickery. Why wouldn't Feldman file in state court, where judges are elected and wouldn't dare dump the results of the election? "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," Jones said, "but I kept saying man! From a legal perspective, I could not understand any legal move we made."
"Frankly," Feldman explained, "we felt given the highly politicized nature of the issue that we would be better off bringing the action in federal court." Judges there, he said, "would be above any type of political influence." But to many, the federal court where Feldman sued reeked of politics. It just happened to be the home court of District Judge David Hittner — father of George Hittner, general counsel for ATS. Judge Lynn Hughes, who received the city's case, has worked in the same court as Judge Hittner for 24 years.
Fearing no truly adverse parties in what they called a "tickle fight" of a lawsuit, the Kuboshes tried to intervene with their own lawyers. ATS and the City of Houston both opposed the intervention. Feldman's reason? "In my experience being a trial lawyer for 35 years," he said, "the more cooks you have in the kitchen, the more difficult it is."
ATS had seven lawyers on the case. Houston had only three. And in June, Judge Hughes ruled the election had been illegal.
ATS told the city to either pay $20 million in damages — a number that would soon grow to $25 million, including all of ATS's Keep Houston Safe campaign costs, lawyer fees and the city's hypothetical uncollected future fines — or turn the cameras back on. While Feldman appealed the ruling, Parker flip-flopped yet again, and on August 1, she reignited the cameras. Voters, again, were outraged.
"I've stated this publicly over and over again, and I don't know why people don't hear me," Parker said at a city council meeting. "I understood the will of the voters. I turned the cameras off. I'm doing my level best to keep the cameras off permanently. However, I'm not willing to take $20 million out of the city budget where I've already had to lay people off. So I'm trying to limit the damages."
Red-light cameras continued to leech time and focus from policymakers. Public speeches at city council meetings grew louder, longer and more numerous. People were so furious that Parker had disrespected the will of the voters that even those who voted for the cameras demanded they be turned off, including Pastor James Nash. He attended virtually every city council meeting and demanded that the city respect the voters' wishes. "Every Sunday, I stand up at my pulpit and talk about the need for people to get out and vote," he said. "A lot of time people say, 'There's no need for me to vote. My vote won't be counted.' In this particular instance, it's true."
On top of everything else, council members didn't know what to say when their constituents asked if they needed to pay red-light violations. On this point, City Attorney Feldman was clear. "The citizens of Houston should not be mistaken: We are going to collect on these fines," he said in a council meeting. "We also have the authority to report to credit bureaus."
"Specifically barred by law," Paul Kubosh said of Feldman's threat. In fact, he and his brothers helped some state representatives draft an amendment to transportation code 707 back in the early 2000s, in order to take the bite out of red-light cameras. Some of Kubosh's fantasies didn't go through, such as granting everyone who receives a red-light ticket the right to a jury. But others did. Take section 2h: "A local authority or the person with which the local authority contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not provide information about a civil penalty imposed under this chapter to a credit bureau." The most they can do to you, the Kuboshes say, is to forbid you to register your car online and force you to do it in person.
And by the way, the whole contract with ATS is illegal, according to both the Kubosh brothers and Jolanda Jones. Take a look at section 2b of the transportation code: "A local authority that contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not agree to pay the contractor a specified percentage of, or dollar amount from, each civil penalty collected" — which is exactly how ATS gets paid.
Finally, on August 24, the issue reached a breaking point. Rumors of abysmal mayoral polls floated from politico to politico; some claimed they heard Parker's support was in the 20 percents. It was no longer about safety or even revenue. Rather, it became political. Nearly all city council members sprinted over to the side long held by council woman Jones: The cameras had to go. Finally, Parker brought to the council a vote to repeal the ordinance allowing red-light cameras — a vote that would mean the end of red-light cameras in Houston forever. All but council woman Sue Lovell voted to bring them down. Parker, with a little help from her friends on city council, changed sides for the last time. She ordered the cameras off, three months before Election Day.
ATS was not pleased. "The reputation of the business community in Houston is literally being flushed down the toilet," Taylor said after the vote.
Losing Houston isn't the end of the world, according to ATS spokesman Charles Territo. "Despite what was going on in Houston throughout the year, in the second quarter alone, we signed 28 contracts for new programs," he said.
They've got their sights set on small Texas towns, but so does Baytown's anti-camera crusader Byron Schirmbeck. "ATS kinda created me," he said. "I'm gonna be out there everywhere they are, helping people have a vote on these things." Baytown voted in the ordinance that requires a police officer to witness a camera violation, which would exponentially slash violations.
"It was kind of a test to see if it was really about safety or money," Schirmbeck said. "There wasn't anything in my ordinance that said they had to get rid of the cameras." ATS voluntarily turned off the cameras just two months later. After a flurry of lawsuits, Baytown and ATS settled for $1 million, just a day after Houston repealed its red-light camera ordinance. ATS had originally asked for as much as $5 million, Schirmbeck said.
This month, Schirmbeck traveled to Dayton to speak to the city council there, whose members are considering a contract with ATS. But first, council members wanted to put it to a November vote. Schirmbeck filmed the meeting, capturing a moment in which a council member asked why ATS had canceled its presentation. The city manager said he spoke with the representative from ATS over the phone. "He is very unhappy that this item is going to a referendum," said Dayton's city manager. "He and I discussed it a little bit, but he was not a happy camper."
Schirmbeck plans to travel to meetings like this all over the state with the Kuboshes. They're thinking of tackling Cleveland next. "All you need's 250 signatures," said Paul Kubosh. "You turn that in, and the ordinance has gotta be stopped right away. I could do it with the kids for service hours."
At that August 2 city council meeting, Michael Kubosh had followed his brother to the podium. Most of the room stood up as he prepared to address the council. ATS's Andy Taylor remained seated, his legs crossed.
It was nearly nine months since Parker had put the amendment up for a vote. "Mayor," Kubosh said with a smile, "you told me, 'I'm going to beat ya fair and square at the ballot box.'"
"And I lost," Mayor Parker replied flatly.
The Kuboshes aren't through with Houston or Parker yet, though. They're working on a new charter amendment. This one would strip the mayor of her power to solely control the agenda. So far, the idea is just a percolation, but if the Kuboshes follow through, as they intend to, council members would have more leverage over the agenda. "We would never have been thinking about changing the charter but for what the mayor did," Paul Kubosh said.
And they know how to get the signatures.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.