Longform

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.

"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 ?
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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.

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Mandy Oaklander
Contact: Mandy Oaklander