Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at a neighborhood meeting last month, will be in Englewood today to meet with community groups. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune / July 21, 2014)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel won’t say whether thousands of drivers who received red light camera citations during a series of suspicious ticket spikes should receive refunds for the $100 fines they have paid to the city.

The Emanuel administration has been unable to explain the sudden increases in red light tickets revealed in a Tribune investigation published Friday. Asked Tuesday whether drivers should get their money back, given the problem, Emanuel was non-committal.

“I’m not going to pre-judge stuff. That would be wrong for me to do. I’m not going to do that today,” the mayor said. “That’s not for me to decide.”

The comments were Emanuel’s first on the red light ticket anomalies since the Tribune investigation broke. For four days, the mayor had refused to take questions on the issue, instead sticking to tightly-controlled photo opportunities on city violence and school construction. His aides also declined to answer questions or return phone calls.

But on Tuesday, Emanuel offered a two-minute interview after appearing at a ceremonial groundbreaking for Wildwood Elementary School in the Forest Glen neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side.

The mayor reiterated that he has asked Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to “review the books, review any issues” with the red light camera system. That request came as some aldermen crafted a letter to get Ferguson involved and started pushing the idea of ticket refunds.

Emanuel sought to direct blame for the red light program’s performance problems toward the company that ran it, Redflex Traffic Systems, rather than at the city’s own oversight of the network of cameras that generate millions of dollars in ticket revenue per year.

Last year, Emanuel fired Redflex after the Tribune uncovered a cozy relationship between the firm and former city transportation manager John Bills, who was instrumental in awarding the company its contract and overseeing its growth and operation until he retired in 2011. The Tribune’s reporting led Redflex to publicly acknowledge it likely paid as much as $2 million in bribes for its Chicago business, and federal authorities arrested Bills on bribery charges in May.

On Tuesday, Emanuel sought to tie the termination of Redflex’s contract not just to the bribery scandal, but to its handling of the ticketing program itself.

“About a year ago, I fired ‘em for a host of reasons, even when there were certain questions brought up about other aspects of the way they operated,” Emanuel said of Redflex. “We’re going to work with any commuter who feels there is any way they were wrongly ticketed, so we can get that resolved, because I want all questions to be dealt with. That’s why I fired them.”

Emanuel would not explain, however, what form working with commuters would take. And when Emanuel fired Redflex, his administration made no mention of any problems with the company’s operation of the camera system. Instead, the city’s chief procurement officer, Jamie Rhee, cited Redflex’s failure to report complaints of corruption for an Arizona hotel stay for Bills.

“I find that Redflex's failure to timely report this incident to the city is unacceptable behavior and is a failure by Redflex to act in the city's best interest,” Rhee wrote.

Redflex was no longer eligible for city work, Rhee determined, because of its violations of the city’s ethics laws. There was no mention of any camera system malfunctions.

In addition, Emanuel transportation officials have said they had no knowledge of the severe spikes in red light tickets until they were told by the Tribune — despite the fact that City Hall legally required the red light camera vendor to watch for the slightest anomaly in ticketing patterns every day.

After analyzing more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007, the Tribune found cameras that for years generated only a few tickets daily suddenly caught dozens of drivers a day. Tickets for so-called rolling right turns on red also shot up during dramatic spikes, suggesting an unannounced change in the city’s enforcement.

The Tribune also found that many of the spikes in tickets were marked by periods immediately before and after where no tickets were issued, downtimes that suggested human intervention that should have been documented. But the Emanuel administration has said it cannot explain the absence of such maintenance records.

Four national traffic experts who reviewed the Tribune’s findings suggested that drivers are entitled to refunds, whatever caused the spikes in tickets. Emanuel would only say the city is “going to work with any commuter who feels there is any way they were wrongly ticketed.”

Asked if he was concerned about the city’s oversight of the red light program and the fact that his own transportation department was not aware of the wild swings in tickets, Emanuel said twice that he had given his answers on the issue as he climbed into the back seat of his black, city-owned SUV.

Asked a third time, Emanuel replied: “I’m concerned with what Redflex did, which is why I fired them.”

The mayor then quickly shut the SUV’s door, disappearing behind its tinted window. 

bruthhart@tribune.com
Twitter @BillRuthhart