By John Byrne, Kim Geiger and David Kidwell
9:18 PM CDT, July 21, 2014
A group of aldermen said Monday they will ask City Hall's top watchdog to investigate Chicago's beleaguered red light camera program following a Tribune investigation that revealed a series of suspicious ticket spikes around the city that tagged thousands of drivers with $100 fines.
Meanwhile, outraged drivers in the city and suburbs reacted with their own tales of questionable tickets and appeals lost, even as class action lawyers began trolling social media in search of potential clients who were ticketed during the wild spikes.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, which has acknowledged the explosions of tickets should have been detected and resolved as they occurred, declined to take questions Monday. Instead, a transportation spokesman issued a statement saying that “out of an abundance of caution,” the administration on Monday had contacted Inspector General Joseph Ferguson “to seek his help in evaluating the program’s performance and examining management practices moving forward.”
Emanuel aides, however, did not respond to questions or return phone calls. Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, reached by phone, declined to comment.
The fallout already has begun on the Chicago City Council.
“We want to find out what went wrong, and we want to see refunds where the ticket was wrongly issued,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “That would be the way to do it. The basis would be refunds in cases where tickets were wrongly issued.”
Waguespack, an outspoken Emanuel critic, said he and several colleagues are coming up with a proposal to call for a full audit by the inspector general. That office already is helping federal authorities investigate allegations that the red light camera program was corrupted from its inception by up to $2 million in bribes to the former city official who oversaw it.
Last year, Emanuel fired the longtime vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, amid Tribune reports about the firm's cozy relationship with John Bills, a top Chicago Department of Transportation manager who retired in 2011. In May, federal authorities charged Bills with bribery amid an ongoing federal grand jury investigation.
The latest Tribune report found clear evidence that since 2007 dozens of suspicious ticket spikes throughout the city were caused by either faulty equipment, human tinkering, or both. City officials said they didn't know about and cannot explain the anomalies, despite a requirement that Redflex check for them on a daily basis.
On Monday, some aldermen said they have been hearing from outraged constituents and called for reform including blanket refunds, a moratorium on new cameras and a sweeping investigation of every red light camera intersection.
“Without a doubt, anyone who got wrongly ticketed during one of those spikes is entitled to a refund,” said Ald. Roberto Maldonado, 26th. “And I hope the city gives them one without making them go through the hoops of coming down and taking the time to appear at an administrative hearing.”
Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, said the spikes call into question the trustworthiness of every red light camera, while Ald. James Cappleman, 46th, said the cash-strapped city will need to find the funds to repay anyone who was wrongly ticketed.
“It's a matter of fairness,” Cappleman said. “And so the money has to be returned, and we have to find the money we spent in some other way. That's my challenge, and the challenge the rest of the aldermen have and the mayor has.”
Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, called for an instant moratorium on the installation of any new cameras and a “phase out of all red light cameras over time, the sooner the better.”
Waguespack said he and others have been complaining to city transportation officials for some time about the short length of the yellow lights at some camera-controlled intersections. “They were like 'Don't worry about it, everything is cool,'” the alderman said. “Well, clearly it wasn't.”
The issue of short yellow lights has long been an issue in Chicago, where intervals are at the minimum federal standards. The city's website says yellow lights should be no lower than 3 seconds where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour or lower and no lower than four seconds at speed limits 35 mph or higher. A review of appeal records shows that the city's hearing officers have overturned at least 42 tickets since 2007 because of yellow lights that were too short.
Among them was Bill Curran, who was driving home from Midway late one night in January when he saw the flash of a red light camera as he approached the Stevenson Expressway from Cicero Avenue.
“It was almost like bang, bang,” said Curran, 62, of Naperville. “I knew right then what was happening. I thought, that had to have been the shortest light ever.”
A few weeks later, when the $100 ticket appeared in the mail, Curran decided he would spend whatever it took to fight it.
Curran said he paid for a professional analysis of the yellow light time, which showed it lasted only 2.66 seconds. The information on his ticket said the yellow was 3.04 seconds. Records show Curran won his appeal.
“They're putting all these cameras in and everybody's sitting there lying to our face, saying it's about safety,” said Curran. “It's not about safety. It's a money grab.”
Cory Burke lost his appeal of an April 16 ticket at the corner of Chicago and Pulaski, even though the ticket itself listed the yellow time at 2.9 seconds — below city standards.
The 35-year-old Oak Park resident wrote a letter to the city explaining that the yellow traffic light wasn't long enough to meet the city's requirements. He was notified in a letter from the city that he had “asserted an excuse or reason which is not recognized.”
“At that point, I just said, it's not worth me trying to appeal it again,” said Burke, one of dozens who contacted the Tribune with a red light ticket story. “I guess that's what most people do anyway.”
By Monday, several attorneys had taken to social media such as Twitter looking for potential class-action clients.
“My firm is involved in two class actions against the City. Anyone who received an undeserved tickets during one of these spikes, or before May 22, 2006, may be part of a special sub-class in the case,” wrote one attorney, Patrick J. Keating, in the online comments section of one Tribune story.
Keating said he wants to sue on behalf of anyone ticketed during one of the spikes identified by the Tribune. He's already awaiting a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court on a class-action case arguing that the entire red light program in Chicago is illegal because it began issuing tickets three years before Illinois lawmakers passed enabling legislation.
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