Longview citizens will get to vote on the city's red-light camera program in November, but the vote will be advisory only.
Wednesday morning, a divided City Council rejected calls to put a citizens initiative on the ballot that would repeal the program, rebuffing initiative king Tim Eyman and other camera critics.
The initiative petition would repeal the city's traffic camera program, which has been nabbing red light runners at three Ocean Beach Highway intersections and speeders at two school zones since March. The initiative would bar the city from reimposing the program without a public vote.
Backers of the petition turned in 3,628 signatures Monday, about 900 more than the number of valid signatures needed to force the measure on to the ballot.
On a 4-3 vote, the council adopted a resolution stating that its decision to establish a traffic safety camera program is not legally subject to the initiative process. However, as a concession to initiative supporters, the council also set a non-binding advisory vote on the camera program in November.
Handing the critics half a loaf didn't come close to satisfying Eyman and other initiative supporters.
"You royally screwed over the voters, robbed them of their right to initiative," Eyman thundered in an email to Mayor Kurt Anagnostou later in the day.
Councilman Dennis Weber introduced the resolution, stating that he normally is an advocate on the initiative process but that holding one on the traffic cameras would be illegal under state law.
"The state needs to change the law," Weber said.
City Attorney Marilyn Nitteberg-Haan explained that the Legislature specifically gave cities authority to adopt traffic safety measures, and those measures would not be subject to the initiative and referendum process (see breakout). Because the Longview council adopted an ordinance allowing the traffic cameras for an 18-month pilot study, it would be illegal to allow the initiative, she said.
Nitteberg-Haan also said if the city halts the traffic camera program before it ends in May 2012, the company that rents the cameras to the city, American Traffic Solutions, could sue for breach of contract.
What's next? The city could ask a court to bar the initiative from the ballot. Alternatively, it could wait for someone to go to court to force the city to submit the initiative to voters.
Asked if he and other initiative backers would sue, he said "all options are on the table."
During the 30-minute comment period before the council's vote, Longview resident Mike Wallin, a co-sponsor of "Longview Initiative No. 1," told the council that making the vote advisory rather than binding was "skirting the issue."
"I do appreciate that it (the vote) would be in November because that makes it especially interesting for at least four of you," Wallin said, referring to the four council members up for re-election.
Longview resident Rebecca Strong also the council to follow the initiative process - but she would vote in favor of keeping the cameras.
"I think that's protection for the rest of us," she said, recounting her near-misses with red-light runners.
Despite the public's comments, the measure carried narrowly, with city councilmen Ken Botero, Don Jensen and Chet Makinster voting no. Botero had favored a binding public vote, saying, "I have all the confidence in the world the citizens of Longview are going to vote for safety."
Jensen said he was elected to represent the people, and the people had spoken by signing the initiative petition.
"It seems like we as a council are kind of mucking up the issues," he said. "We're not voting on whether we're having red light cameras or not. That really doesn't enter into what we're doing today."
Before the meeting started, Eyman joined 18 other protesters on the steps of Longview City Hall. The group took turns making speeches and carried signs reading "Let my people vote," "Iran 98632? Let us vote," "Some of Longview's finest signed our petition. Did you?" and "We did our job. You do yours."
At 8:30 a.m., they entered the council chambers. Eyman attempted to address the council, but Mayor Anagnostou immediately called an executive session. During the half hour the council was in another room consulting with the city attorney, Eyman twice led the crowd, which had grown to about 60 people, in two-minute chants of "Let us vote."
When the council reconvened, Anagnostou chastised the group for the flyer it distributed Tuesday accusing the council of planning a "secret" meeting and "plotting" to block citizens' right to vote.
"I do this job as a service to Longview," the mayor said. "I'm one of you, and to indicate I'm plotting is wrong and inflammatory."
Among the protesters Wednesday morning were Longview political activists Mike Wallin and Tim Sutinen and his teenage son Josh Sutinen. They contend the camera program is about making money and not about improving safety, as Chief Police Alex Perez and other supporters contend.
After the council meeting, Wallin emailed the city attorney demanding she put the petition's wording directly on November's ballot, saying he would "accept and support nothing less."
That prompted a tart back-and-forth between Mayor Kurt Anagnostou and Eyman, who copied the messages to the rest of the council and several media outlets.
"In your initiative, did you explain to the citizens that our ordinance was a one-year trial and that the funds would go into a traffic safety fund? Funny thing, I didn't see it in your initiative," Anagnostou wrote.
Eyman replied: "You ... stole a binding vote on an initiative that turned in sufficient signatures, and now you want to manipulate the advisory vote so it's totally different than what the 3,628 Longview voters signed on to."