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Federal Judge in Texas Invalidates Houston's Popular Vote to Eliminate Red-Light Cameras

Published on June 23, 2011, by in General.

On June 17, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes, a Reagan appointee, ruled that a November 2010 ballot measure passed by the voters of Houston, Texas, is invalid. Here is the six-page opinion in City of Houston v American Traffic Solutions, Inc., southern district H-10-4545. There will be an appeal. American Traffic Solutions is the company that installs red light cameras at intersections.

Texas election law, and the Houston city charter, permit initiatives to amend to city charter, but there is no initiative process for ordinances. There is provision for referendums for ordinances, but referendum petitions must be filed shortly after an ordinance is passed by the city council. In 2004 the Houston city council passed an ordinance to use cameras to record cars running red lights. No one filed a referendum petition against that new policy in 2004. As time went on, popular discontent with the cameras increased, so in 2010 the city council, responding to popular opinion, put a proposed Charter Amendment on the ballot to ask the voters if they wish to eliminate the cameras. The voters passed it, but this decision invalidates the vote, on the grounds that an issue that narrow can’t be a Charter amendment. It is not clear why this case is in federal court instead of state court.

5 Responses

  1. Houston voters made the right choice. Those cameras clearly violate our rights to privacy as US citizens. This federal judge is overstepping hid Comstitutional duties by making law instead of interpreting it.

  2. RJ

    Too bad. Seems this issue is all about money.

  3. Jim Riley

    That is not correct. The Houston City Charter provides for both the initiative and referendum for ordinances. The provision for amendment of the charter of home rule cities is in the Local Government Code of Texas statute. Charter amendments may be proposed by the city council, or by petition. All charter amendments must be approved by the people.

    The reason for the 30-day limit on referendums is because the ordinance is suspended until after the election is held. Judge Hughes did not seem to tumble on to that aspect of the process.

    The reason for the ordinance in the first place is that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute the operator of the vehicle for running a red light based on photographic evidence. The ordinance was so that the city could enter into the contract with ATS. The first cameras were not used until 2006, 2 years after the ordinance was passed.

    The reason to use charter amendment rather than changing an ordinance is that the city council can simply re-enact an ordinance. If a city charter did not have an initiative and referendum procedure, there would be no way to control a city council other than a charter amendment.

    While the People might have used the referendum process, or the ordinance initiative process, or recalled the city council, or elected a new city council, they were not required to use those tools.

    The reason it is in federal court rather than state court, is because that is where the city filed suit, in an attempt to have their contract with ATS voided. It has been suggested that the city chose this venue because they wanted to lose. The city council has a pretty slimy record with regard to initiatives. Why do you think there will be an appeal?

    When the case was filed, Hughes denied intervention by the petitioners, based on it being a contract dispute between the city and ATS. Nonetheless, he opined, “[t]he petitioners did not call it a referendum – a proposition to repeal an offending ordinance. To evade the deadline on referendums, they called it an amendment to the charter.”

    IOW, he decided that their petition was presented under false pretenses, but they could not challenge or present contrary evidence. Had the city decided to deny their petition and not hold the election on the charter revision, then they would clearly have had standing.

  4. An Alabama Independent

    I think this is one issue which we are all in agreement – whether libertarian, constitutionalist, prohibitionist, green, socialist, or whatever. This is all about money. “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” (I Timothy 6:10)

  5. conncerned citizen

    We need to vote to get rid of Parker & Hughes.

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