Petition Filed to Ban Traffic Cameras in Iowa City

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

A traffic camera at 1st Avenue NE and 10th Street NE in Cedar Rapids is surrounded by snow on Sunday, December 19, 2010. (Matt Nelson/KCRG)


By Adam Carros

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa City residents opposed to red-light and speed cameras hope they can go where no other community in the state or the Legislature has gone by banning the devices.

They moved closer to that Monday by submitting a petition they hope forces the City Council to either adopt an ordinance outlawing traffic-enforcement cameras and other automated surveillance technology, like drones, or to send the matter to voters to decide.

But even if the petition is valid, there remains the major unresolved question of whether it was brought in a timely manner and therefore whether the City Council even has to act.

The petition effort was led by Iowa City residents Aleksey Gurtovoy and Martha Hampel, with the aid of the unusual pairing of the Johnson County Republicans and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Gurtovoy said they filed signatures from 3,322 registered Iowa City voters with the City Clerk’s Office Monday. They needed 2,500.

Gurtovoy said the cameras do not improve public safety, raise privacy concerns and are a money grab by cities.

“There are so many downsides,” he said. “If it wasn’t for revenue, this wouldn’t even be on table.”

Although the City Council voted 4-3 a year ago to allow traffic-enforcement cameras, none are up yet and are unlikely to be for at least a year as the Iowa Department of Transportation develops rules for their use on state routes.

The ordinance proposed in the petition would ban not only traffic-enforcement cameras but also drones and automatic license-plate recognition systems. The City Council has only considered red-light cameras.

The city now has 20 days to verify the signatures on the petition, which it will do by comparing them with voter rolls, City Clerk Marian Karr said. If it is deemed insufficient, the petitioners could ask for 15 more days to collect signatures.

A sufficient petition could set up an interesting legal dispute.

Gurtovoy and Hampel, backed by ACLU of Iowa attorneys, maintain that what they are seeking is what the City Charter classifies as an initiative. Last year they filed three affidavits to start an initiative, but City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said it was a referendum.

An initiative proposes a measure for the council’s consideration. A referendum requires the City Council to reconsider an existing measure, and a referendum petition must be filed within 60 days of the adoption of the measure in question or not until two years after an adoption.

The City Council adopted the red-light camera ordinance in February 2012, meaning a referendum would not be timely.

In both an initiative and a referendum, if the council does not take the requested action, the proposal goes to the public for a vote.

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said Monday that she would research the matter further and hopes to come to a determination soon.

“I have not spent any time on the ACLU’s review, and my plan is to take a look at that in more detail and see what I think,” she said.

The City Council would have the city's final say on whether it is a referendum or initiative. That opinion could be appealed to District Court.

While some state lawmakers have proposed bans or restrictions on traffic-enforcement cameras in recent years, those bills have gone nowhere. Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said he was unaware of any city that had outlawed cameras either by a vote of a city council or the public.

Kemp and the ACLU of Iowa said they did not know of of any other Iowa town that allows citizens to petition for reconsideration of a law or put it up for a public vote.

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