Red-light camera company more than just a vendor

  • Red-light cameras are a source of controversy in the suburbs, as the majority of violations are for right-turns on red.

    Red-light cameras are a source of controversy in the suburbs, as the majority of violations are for right-turns on red. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Red-light cameras across the suburbs are sold as devices to improve safety. They have been criticized as ways to produce revenue for violations that are not considered among the more dangerous, such as going through a red light.

    Red-light cameras across the suburbs are sold as devices to improve safety. They have been criticized as ways to produce revenue for violations that are not considered among the more dangerous, such as going through a red light. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Red light cameras on Woodfield Road at Meacham  Road in Schaumburg.

    Red light cameras on Woodfield Road at Meacham Road in Schaumburg. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Published: 11/1/2009 12:01 AM

Part cheerleader, part father figure and always the lobbyist, surveillance camera company RedSpeed Illinois is a vendor that likes to keep in touch with its clients. Constantly.

A review of e-mails between RedSpeed and municipalities that hired the red-light camera company reveals a vigilant campaign of self-promotion. That includes urging local leaders to pressure lawmakers to back pro-camera bills, bad-mouthing ex-client Schaumburg, providing media talking points, and inviting law enforcement to a "Police Chief Brew Fest" for charity.

The e-mails, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to Lombard, Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village, raise eyebrows at good government groups and are fueling calls for reforms from some of the legislators RedSpeed targeted. Supporters, though, say there's nothing wrong or unusual about RedSpeed's lobbying.

Yet the e-mails "clearly demonstrate the cozy relationship that exists between professional lobbyists and our elected officials," said Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican who wants to ban red-light cameras. "This makes me want to work even harder to defeat red-light cameras in Illinois."

RedSpeed did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Company attorneys, however, told Elk Grove Village and Lombard that the FOIA request was "exceedingly too broad," and violated personal privacy and trade secrets exemptions provided by law.

Lombard-based RedSpeed is one of several companies leasing cameras to many Northwest and West suburban municipalities to catch red-light violators.

A Daily Herald investigation of the rapid growth of the technology found it has the propensity to be a cash cow. The "Seeing Red" series showed that the vast majority of the $100-per-violation tickets go to people turning right on red without coming to a complete stop or stopping before the white line, a maneuver experts consider less hazardous than running a red light. The research also found in many cases, cameras are located at or planned for intersections with minimal red-light-related accidents. Subsequently, the newspaper received a flood of e-mails, calls and letters from readers who consider the cameras unfair and punitive.

The breakup

For a while RedSpeed and Schaumburg had a beautiful friendship.

"I look forward to a long and successful partnership with you," RedSpeed executive Greg Zito, a former state senator and ex-lobbyist, wrote Schaumburg officials in August 2008.

But as the village board was poised to terminate its contract in summer 2009, RedSpeed criticized its outgoing client in an e-mail to other municipalities.

"Make no mistake that the mayor and village board's decision is purely political in nature and has absolutely nothing to do with RedSpeed Illinois or the integrity of the program," the e-mail stated.

Installed for a few months in late 2008 at an intersection by the Woodfield Shopping Center, red-light cameras generated about $1 million, nearly all for right-turn violations.

That made the village one of its most productive clients but that cut no ice with RedSpeed.

"Schaumburg had a vocal core of red light enforcement critics and apparently the village officials will succumb to their unfounded arguments regarding the safety effectiveness of these programs," the memo said.

Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson responded that the cameras were sold to the village on the safety issue as a means of preventing deadly broadside accidents. But police found little public safety benefit.

Instead, the village received a flood of complaints and out-of-town visitors threatened to boycott hotels, shops and restaurants.

"I don't know what they mean when they say our decision was political," Larson said. "We felt it wasn't worth it. We didn't want our town to be known as a 'red-light camera town.' We want people to come to Schaumburg, we don't want them to avoid us."

As for the e-mail, "I think it shows a lack of class on the part of RedSpeed," Larson said.

Targeting opponents

RedSpeed issues legislative updates to customers when the General Assembly is in session. This spring, it lobbied municipal officials and police to push for a law allowing speed cameras in Illinois, a development with the potential to generate millions in revenue.

"This is the long-awaited speed photo enforcement bill," a February legislative update states.

A March update praises Sen. Terry Link for sponsoring the legislation. The Vernon Hills Democrat "will need YOUR help if we have a chance to pass this when the bill is voted on. Please contact your senators and ask them to support (the bill)," the update states.

Lawmakers who appeared to be swayed by complaints from the public were chided.

"One surprise is our own Sen. John Millner who is having serious reservations about voting yes. Some constituents of John's have been pressuring him to vote against the speed bill. It would help if John heard from police colleagues and friends on the importance of passing this bill," the memo said.

Millner, a Carol Stream Republican, voted against the speed cameras and is now working on legislation that would make drivers more aware of the cameras and the illegality of turning right on red.

"The bottom line is it's an issue of concern for many people," said Millner, a former Elmhurst police chief. "It's disappointing to be the target of an attack. I'm doing this for the right reasons."

Duffy said the e-mails are a cynical attempt to influence lawmakers to ignore voters.

"When some legislators were having concerns about voting for the bill due to constituent opposition to the cameras, Redspeed encouraged local officials to call to persuade those legislators to ignore their constituents' concerns and vote in favor of Redspeed," Duffy said.

RedSpeed credits its lobbyists, who include former elected officials, for its legislative successes. But it recognized the opposition was fierce and blamed voters in an April update.

"Most DuPage County senators are still having serious reservations about voting yes," the update states. "Many constituents have been pressuring them to vote against the speed bill. It would help if they heard from police colleagues and friends on the importance of passing this bill."

In a May update, the company noted that "we have softened the bill in an effort to gain additional support." However, senators opposed the speed camera bill in a 35-13 vote May 19.

"The sponsor was given this bill by the people who only want to gouge the people of the state of Illinois," Chicago Democratic Sen. Rickey Hendon said.

Link, who said cameras are a significant safety tool, considers the Legislative Updates par for the course.

"Municipalities call us on all sorts of legislation," he said. "They call if they want pension reform, if they want water systems, if they want whatever. It's not something that's unusual for them to call us and state their opinion on a piece of legislation.

"Somebody is blowing this out of proportion if they feel that it's inappropriate."

Lombard Police Chief Ray Byrne didn't have an opinion on the lobbying effort. But it's nothing new, he said, explaining RedSpeed is not the only entity to contact Lombard wanting officials to reach out to lawmakers. The village gets approached by interests ranging from anti-gun groups to social service agencies.

"It's no different from anyone else who wants to advance their legislation," Byrne said.

Good-government groups reviewing the e-mails were intrigued by the legislative campaign.

"They were asking for participation in lobbying that was independent of issues affecting the municipality directly," said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Council.

"I had no idea there was so much lobbying going on," Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Deputy Director David Morrison said. "What did strike me was how much this private interest is trying to persuade local public officials to take an official public stand on state legislation."

Carrot and stick

RedSpeed is sensitive to negative publicity. Following a critical radio interview by Duffy, RedSpeed e-mailed police chiefs, mayors and village trustees stating the senator "made several inaccurate statements about your (red light) programs, using this misinformation as a platform for his position."

The e-mail offers talking points for local leaders.

For example, to offset arguments that cameras are installed for revenue reasons, the e-mail notes that "if drivers do not break the traffic laws, they do not receive a ticket and subsequent fine."

Duffy shot back that RedSpeed has donated more than $39,000 in recent years to legislators to promote its cause while collecting millions of fines from Illinois citizens and urging lawmakers to ignore the voices of the public.

"The facts remain the same. The majority of tickets are issued because motorists roll past the white line when turning right on red. If turning right on red is a safety issue, then why don't legislators make them illegal?" he said.

But not every e-mail is about giving advice or urging action.

"As a thank you to our clients, RedSpeed would like to provide three polo shirts per municipality," stated a June 2008 e-mail to Elk Grove Village. Elk Grove declined the gift.

This May, RedSpeed staff forwarded an invitation to Byrne to an "Inaugural Police Chief Brew Fest." The event, which was not sponsored by RedSpeed, involved a brewery tour, beer tasting, and brewing an original beer - "Flat Foot Copper Ale," with proceeds going to a charity chosen by attendees.

Byrne did not attend the event. But he said the charity chosen was a very worthwhile cause, the 100 Club, a nonprofit that provides financial support to families of police officers killed in the line of duty.

Some however, were nonplused by the nexus of the brew fest, law enforcement and a company whose raison d'être is public safety.

"I thought it was somewhat ironic," Morrison said.

The legislature is likely to look at red-light camera policies in early 2010 and emotions run the gamut from supporters such as Link to opponents like Duffy and to Millner who is staking out a middle ground.

Asked how the cameras were working in Lombard, Byrne said the village will wait until spring when there's a year of data to comb through.

Right now, "it's too early" to tell, he said.