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'Heads Should Roll' Over Red-Light Ticket Settlement, Alderman Says

By Heather Cherone | July 24, 2017 4:28pm | Updated on July 26, 2017 11:37am
 A sign warns driver of red light camera enforcement at Foster and Broadway.
A sign warns driver of red light camera enforcement at Foster and Broadway.
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CITY HALL — "Heads should roll" over the need for the city to pay $38.75 million to settle claims it failed to allow motorists to challenge tickets issued by red-light and speed cameras, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said.

Beale, the chairman of the council's transportation committee and a long-time critic of the city's red-light and speed cameras, called the settlement "disturbing" and said the system was "corrupt from the very beginning."

"I'm excited that "residents are going to get their just due," Beale said. "However, this was designed not for public safety but to generate hundreds of millions of dollars. This system was designed to hurt the people who can least afford to pay these tickets."

Under the settlement — endorsed Monday by the finance committee and expected to be approved Wednesday by the full council —1.2 million people who paid fines, but didn't get a chance to contest 1.5 million citations, could get a refund of half of what they paid the city, officials said.

Beale said the city employees who failed to follow the law in effect from 2010 to 2015 that required the city to send drivers a second notice about the violation and given 14 days to pay or contest the ticket before declaring that they were guilty and imposing a $100 fine on tickets not paid on time should be fired.

"Heads need to roll," Beale said. "A bunch of heads need to roll."

However, Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel, the city's top attorney, said a "confluence of events" led to the problem that could have put the city on the hook for $250 million.

The settlement will send $26.75 million back to drivers who paid their fines between March 2010 and May 2015 and wipes out $12 million owed to the city by motorists. Those eligible for a refund will be notified by mail, officials said.

The city plans to pay the settlement with $10 million from the $20 million the city got from its lawsuit that alleged the initial red-light camera contract was obtained by bribing city officials, Siskel said.

The rest of the settlement will be paid for with $18 million the city is set to receive from hotel reservation websites to settle a lawsuit alleging the websites did not pay the proper amount of taxes to the city, Siskel said.

Beale said it was "amazing that we can find all this extra money" at a time when he and other aldermen are scrambling to find extra funds for programs.

"There's a pot of gold over here, a pot of gold over here," Beale said. "But I can never put my hand in the pot of gold."

Attorney representing the drivers who sued the city could earn $11.5 million from the settlement agreement, Siskel said.

City officials changed the rules in 2015, and gave drivers who got a ticket — but no second notice giving them a chance to challenge it — an opportunity to challenge the old violations.

The settlement includes a provision that prohibits any of the tickets in question from being used to suspend a driver’s license or to boot a vehicle.

The city's red-light camera program has long been troubled.

In March, city officials agreed to ticket drivers only if they enter a camera-monitored intersection three-tenths of a second — or more — after the light turns red.

A Northwestern University Traffic Center study found the old rule forced "people to make a split-second decision about whether to brake or go through the intersection" and could have led to rear-end crashes.

In February, the company that installed the red-light cameras at hundreds of intersections will pay Chicago $20 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged the contract was obtained by bribing city officials.

At an unrelated event Monday afternoon, Mayor Rahm Emanuel defended the red-light camera program, but declined to directly answer questions about the settlement.