Daily Herald
Lobbying intensifies in red light camera fight
By Joseph Ryan | Politics and Projects Editor
Published: 2/21/2010 12:09 AM

As the backlash against red-light cameras continues to mount, companies that profit from those $100 tickets have hired new ranks of lobbyists to convince state lawmakers to back off reform and repeal efforts.

For weeks now, lawmakers at the Illinois Capitol have been inundated with both calls and e-mails from motorists upset over the cameras, as well as petitions from camera company lobbyists and suburban mayors who want to keep the machines snapping pictures at intersections.

Hanging in the balance are at least half a dozen pieces of reform or repeal legislation introduced since the Daily Herald published an investigation last year on the scores of red-light cameras across the suburbs.

The analysis, "Seeing Red: A Daily Herald Investigation of Red-Light Cameras," found numerous cameras going up at intersections that had no previous history of crashes related to red-light running. It also found most tickets are written for rolling right turns on red - a practice experts say is far more common and far less dangerous than the straight-through violations camera companies say they target.

The investigation, along with other media reports and an independent mobilization of motorists disaffected by the tickets, appears to be tipping the scales of public sentiment against how the cameras are being used in the suburbs and Chicago.

"We need people to feel this is right - that it is not about money," says state Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican and former suburban police chief who is sponsoring a reform measure. "The whole point is I want to make sure we have a fair system in place. I want people to know they will not get ripped off."

Meanwhile, towns across the suburbs continue to add red-light cameras while some have decided against it. Both Libertyville and Geneva are adding cameras to busy roads.

However, Barrington officials have said they won't add them in their town.

In Hoffman Estates, the village board on Monday is expected to discuss a contract with American Traffic Solutions to install the village's first red-light cameras at five intersections. That could bring $220,000 of annual income to the village if 75 percent of fines are paid. Board approval could come next month.

Elgin's bid for cameras along Randall Road was rejected by Kane County regulators because city officials wanted cameras at intersections with no significant history of red-light related crashes - the exact issue raised by the Daily Herald's series. Elgin Mayor Ed Schock said he was "perplexed" by the rejection.

Suburbs are likely to continue to press for cameras, not only for safety, but also as they face budget problems. Cameras can reap a community hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

But reform or repeal legislation working its way though the state Capitol could impact that. State Sen. Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington has introduced legislation to ban the cameras. He has more than 15 co-sponsors for his legislation in the 59-member Senate.

"I want to stop the red-light racket," Duffy said. "It is all about revenue. It is not about safety."

Millner's plan would add new signage at intersections regarding right turns, ensure police officers review every ticket and provide for easier appeals. But he said he may need to go further, perhaps by tightening up regulations on where cameras can go and providing ways for motorists to independently find out if they have tickets on their record.

"Maybe this needs to go even further yet," Millner said.

Millner, and other supporters of red-light cameras, say the tickets keep motorists on their toes and reduce serious crashes. The veteran Republican lawmaker fears that if substantive reform legislation isn't approved to reduce camera abuses, the entire system will get tossed out of the state.

The ultimate outcome of reform or repeal legislation remains unclear.

Politically, a number of factors are playing out. For one, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has influence over a large number of votes and he supports the cameras that bring the city tens of millions of dollars a year.

Additionally, a large number of lawmakers from Illinois' northwest, central and south regions appear to be indifferent to the matter. Cameras are only legal in Chicago, the collar county suburbs and around East St. Louis.

As lawmakers debate the legislation, the two dominant camera companies in the Chicago area have upped their clout-heavy lobbying power.

RedSpeed, which gives out most of the $100 tickets in the Northwest suburbs, added a fourth lobbying firm in late December. Three of its lobbying firms are now headed by former lawmakers -- former state Reps. Robert Molaro, Miguel Santiago and Al Ronan of Chicago.

State records show that after public scrutiny of the cameras increased this summer, Ronan bought breakfast or lunch for three lawmakers on behalf of RedSpeed. One sit down was in Cicero with state Sen. Antonio Munoz of Chicago, who had supported reform legislation.

Another meeting was on Nov. 25 with state Rep. Sid Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican who has championed the use of ticketing cameras at railroad crossings.

Mathias said the Ronan meeting was about railroad crossing cameras and that he is interested in some red-light reform measures, but not a ban.

"Obviously I have received a number of e-mails from people who are not happy with the way the red-light cameras are functioning," Mathias said.

Some of the other lobbying tools RedSpeed uses are newsletters or "Legislative Updates," e-mailed out to myriad municipalities and police departments while the General Assembly is in session. The company lavishes praise on lawmakers who back their agenda, criticizes those in opposition and boasts of how its lobbyists impact the actual legislation, according to e-mails obtained by the Daily Herald.

A March 2009 legislative update chastises Millner for his stance on proposed legislation to institute speed cameras that ultimately failed.

"One surprise is our own John Millner, who is having serious reservations about voting yes" on the speed camera policy because "some constituents of John's have been pressuring him to vote against the speed bill."

RedSpeed also instructs local officials to contact lawmakers in support of its agenda.

"Most DuPage County senators are still having serious reservations about voting yes," an April 2009 update about the speed camera law says. "It would help if they heard from police colleagues and friends on the importance of passing this bill."

Redflex, which has a number of cameras in the suburbs and controls all of the ones in Chicago, has gone from one lobbying firm to three. Last year, the Arizona-based company hired a firm that includes the election attorney for the Democratic Party and former top aides to ex-Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and House Republican Leader Tom Cross.

Representatives for Lombard-based RedSpeed and Redflex didn't return calls seeking comment.

Lobbying is just one leg of the camera company efforts.

RedSpeed, the dominate company in the suburbs, has spent $53,215 since the fall of 2006 on politicians. Half of that money was spent in 2008 and nearly $14,000 went to politicians since the Daily Herald's series came out in July of last year and public heat began to escalate.

Some of the contributions went to members of the Senate's transportation committee, which is handling the reform legislation this year. Powerful legislative leaders Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago and House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago also received contributions.

Suburban politicians accepting contributions, which ranged from a couple hundred dollars to $1,000, since last summer include: state Sen. Carol Pankau of Itasca, retiring state Rep. Paul Froehlich of Schaumburg, state Rep. Skip Saviano of Elmwood Park, state Rep. Karen May of Highland Park, Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens, Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park, state Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park, state Sen. Michael Noland of Elgin, state Sen. Michael Bond of Grayslake and state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi of Joilet.

Daily Herald staff writers Marni Pyke and Ashok Selvam contributed to this report.