Several years ago this blog documented the shameful saga of Fullerton’s red light cameras, which were shut down after a judge declared that the city had been operating them illegally. That was an embarrassing moment for the mystified members of city council; even more so for the city attorney who lost in court and then stuck us with the bill.
The cameras were removed, but the poles and strobes still hang over Harbor Blvd today.
Should the city take them down?
Nope. Please leave them up forever as permanent monuments to magnificent and expensive failure, driven by a desperate quest for new revenue. Ah, wonderful new revenue streams… usually that means some gimmick conjured up to extract more money from the beleaguered public, promoted by tireless staff (and in this case, an eager red light camera salesman) and then executed by council with little regard for external consequences, all to avoid dealing with the real problem: excessive spending.
Any way, I see no sense in tearing down those poles. None at all.
Our city attorney just lost what is hopefully the final round in Fullerton’s red light camera case. A superior court judge denied the city’s request to re-hear the appeal of People vs. Franco, which was originally lost when the city attorney failed to show up at court last.
If you’ve been following along, you know that the red light cameras were a disaster from the very beginning. Fullerton’s contracted city attorney at Jones and Mayer allowed our city council to sign an obviously illegal contract for red light cameras to be installed throughout Fullerton. Thousands upon thousands of illegal tickets were given out until one recipient finally stood up and challenged the contract in court. Last year a judge found that Fullerton’s deal with the bankrupt Nestor Traffic Systems illegally gave the operator an incentive to boost ticket issuance by the cameras.
The most painful part of this story is that we kept getting those expensive legal bills throughout the entire red light camera circus, all the while being encouraged to continue fighting for this lost cause.
Someone close to this case wrote in to suggest that the city should sue Jones & Mayer for malpractice. If that’s an option, we certainly won’t hear about it from Richard D. Jones himself. How much longer will Fullerton pay for this bad advice? Will anyone be held accountable for this series of screw-ups? When was the last time that our contract with J&M was reviewed? It’s time for the council to admit that they were led astray and publicly address these issues with our city attorney.
After being given the ceremonial run-around by the Fullerton PD, our Friend at HighwayRobbery.net was finally able to dig up a copy of Jones and Mayer’s legal bills from the city’s infamous red light case. For those of you who are just catching up, the city lost an appeal last year after an alleged red light violator fought her camera ticket — based on the illegality of Fullerton’s contract with the now-bankrupt Nestor Traffic Systems.
Here’s some free advice to our favorite City Attorney: Give up! You lost the case because you allowed the city to break the law. We don’t need red light cameras:
Fullerton has terminated a dubious partnership with failing red light camera vendor Nestor Traffic Systems after the contract for operation of the cameras was declared to be illegal by an appeals court last year. It’s a long story, but stick with us as we tell this tale of inept vendor selection and blatant disregard for the law in Fullerton…
A long time ago, Fullerton signed a contract with Nestor Traffic Systems to provide red-light cameras throughout the city in an attempt to increase ticket revenue and reduce accidents at popular intersections. At the time, the contract included a clause that allowed the city’s payment to be negotiated down if ticket issuance was lower than expected.
Just about anyone could see that the vendor now had a financial incentive to keep the number of tickets high — that’s a problem. At the time, case law had already dictated that vendors could not benefit from the number of red light tickets issued. Eventually these rulings would become codified into state law.
When the city inquired about how this new California law might affect the contract, the vendor essentially said “Don’t worry, we’ll change it if we get caught.” Sound familiar? That’s how it goes in Fullerton. So our representatives carelessly signed on the dotted line and the police department kept giving out red light tickets illegally.
After the city lost the appeal, a whirlwind of suspicious events transpired:
Failure to Appear – The city of Fullerton didn’t even know that they had lost the appeal until the Register called them for the story. It turns out that the city never showed up for the appeal. The city’s crack legal team at Jones and Meyers attempted to have the original ruling overturned by filing a 26-page Writ of Mandate in May. The request claims that the Fullerton PD was never serviced with a notice of an appeal, even though the court docket says otherwise. The PD’s request was denied, and that’s the last we’ve heard of the case.
The Right to Remain Silent – For the council meeting on 2/3/09, the city staff put together an amendment of the Nestor contract to end the city’s lawbreaking ways, as other cities had already done. But when the item came up for discussion, city manager Chris Meyer mysteriously got cold feet and proposed that the item be moved forward “to a date uncertain”. The council instantaneously and unanimously agreed to put this item off without further questioning. In fact, the council moved so quickly that a gentleman named Dr. Arnold Vagts had to demand his right to speak on the issue later that evening. Why were they so quick to sweep this item under the rug? It turns out that Dr. Vagts had sent a series of emails earlier in the day threatening a class action lawsuit against the city, demanding that the city return all illegal ticket revenues to the victims. If not, the city risks “millions of dollars in lawsuits”, according to Vagts.
Last week our Friend at HighwayRobbery.net made a records request to find out how much the city had spent on legal fees to fight this lost case. In a written reply to a direct question, Sgt. Steve Williams said “No legal council (sic) was retained to prosecute the case by the Fullerton police department.” We believe this to be either a blatant misdirection or perhaps an outright lie, since the city’s contract attorney did write the aforementioned 26-page writ for the case. Lawyers don’t work for free.
How much is this legal wrangling costing us? Why is the city spending time and money to fight a lost court case? We suspect that the legal liabilities and risk of expensive lawsuits are piling up while the city tries to keep this issue quiet.
To top it all off, a successful class-action lawsuit against the city would probably leave taxpayers holding the bill for years of red light revenue, as it is unlikely that the city will be able to turn around and sue Nestor for their part in this tragedy. The company has severe financial problems, including a recent descent into receivership and failure to pay subcontractors for the installation of additional cameras in Fullerton.
When we lose a class action lawsuit, who will pay? Will anyone admit error and appologize for wasting our time and money? Stay tuned as more scandelous details come to light.
Over the past several years you may have noticed the increasingly prolific nature of government-sponsored surveillance cameras throughout the public areas in Fullerton. One Fullerton resident counted over 122 police and traffic cameras spread throughout the city.
These unblinking eyes are given the authority to record us as we lawfully participate in the everyday life of Fullerton citizens. Some of them issue $400 citations when we break the law. Others merely record our presence and store it on disk at the police station, to be reviewed later if we are accused of a crime. Sometimes the cameras are viewed in real time by Fullerton’s finest — other times they are viewed by private citizens working for a smooth-talking surveillance system vendor.
Most of us do appreciate the hard work that Fullerton Police do to find and detain those who cause us harm. However, we must remember that all government power is ultimately derived from the threat of force — necessitating our extreme caution in creation of new powers and rules. As free citizens, it is our responsibility to maintain strong oversight over those who we allow to govern us. We must keep a wary eye on technologies that enable the quiet expansion of power over us, and we should thoughtfully devise rules and policies regarding their use to protect us from individual or systemic abuses of such power.
Some may sneer at our natural tendency to question the continued spawning of such devices. After all – what do we have to hide? Don’t we trust our law enforcement agencies? We all know individual Fullerton officers who we personally trust. Shouldn’t we trust all of them?
Isn’t this just paranoia?
NO. The recent case of Orange County Sheriffs Department’s abusive surveillance of the OC Board of Supervisors is strong justification for our concern. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens stands accused of allowing her deputies to use surveillance cameras to zoom in on the notes, emails and text messages of political opponents and then unlawfully denying public records requests to release the tapes to the public.
Sheriff Hutchens has given us a perfect example of what can happen when we are too cavalier about allowing new technology to expand the presence of law enforcement into our lives. The Board has since voted to remove the Sheriffs’ contract to provide security over the boardroom, but as citizens, it’s not always that easy to protect ourselves once we have allowed an agency to go too far.
I urge the City of Fullerton and the Fullerton Police Department to carefully consider the ramifications of the continued proliferation of surveillance cameras throughout Fullerton. As free and law-abiding people, we do not need or deserve to be monitored whenever we leave our homes.