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Red-light cameras again flummox L.A. City Council [Updated]

June 22, 2011 | 12:11 pm

Photo: A red-light camera at La Brea Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Council stalemate over the city's red-light camera program grew even more pronounced Wednesday, with members making zero progress on the issue after trying four times in 10 minutes to resolve it.

In a chaotic flurry of votes, during which two council members said they had accidentally voted the wrong way, neither supporters nor opponents of the cameras were able to gain the upper hand.

The drama began when Councilman Tony Cardenas, looking to keep the camera program alive, asked his colleagues to postpone a decision on the matter until late July 26 -- five days before the program is slated to die. That motion passed on an 8-6 vote.

But then Councilman Greig Smith said he had voted the wrong way and meant to vote no. The council's voting machines are programmed to vote "yes" automatically unless members specifically register that they are opposed to a motion. "I wasn't paying attention," Smith explained afterward. "Honestly, it went so fast. I was like, Wait, wait.'"

Under the council's rules, Smith was allowed to seek a reconsideration of the issue. Cardenas' proposal then failed on a 7-7 vote. (Eight votes, or a majority, are needed for a proposal to be approved.)

Councilman Dennis Zine, an opponent of the cameras, then pushed for the program to be killed outright. That proposal passed on an 8-6 vote, with Councilwoman Janice Hahn -- who is in the middle of a congressional campaign -- absent. But then Councilman Tom LaBonge, a backer of the cameras, complained that his colleague, Councilman Jose Huizar, had also voted the wrong way. Huizar later said that he was having problems with the computer that allows him to cast his vote.

"The thing malfunctioned," he told The Times.

Council President Eric Garcetti, who opposes the cameras, questioned whether the council members should be permitted to vote again -- because the matter had already been sent "forthwith" to the mayor-- but the council's lawyer said they could. That meant that Huizar, who voted on Tuesday to kill the cameras, had the opportunity to keep the program alive for another month.

To make sure there were no more problems, council members stopped using their computers and held a voice vote. Zine's proposal to kill Cardenas' motion then failed, 7-7.

Huizar said he saw no inconsistency in his two votes. The councilman, whose district stretches from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, said he still wants to kill the camera program because the contractor that operates them, American Traffic Solutions, is located in Arizona. Months ago, the council imposed a boycott of Arizona goods and services to protest that state's immigration laws.

Nevertheless, Huizar also said that council members have a longstanding practice of honoring the wishes of a colleague -- in this case, Cardenas -- who asks for a postponement of a vote on their issue.

The council gridlock first took hold two weeks after the Police Commission voted to end the program on July 31. Since then, the council has taken up the camera program on three separate days, spending 90 minutes on the issue on Tuesday alone. Of the 4,683 intersections in the city that have traffic signals, 32 are equipped with cameras.

Backers of the program say it is a crucial public safety tool. Opponents call it expensive and unfair, because those who choose not to pay their tickets face no risk of a hold on their driver's licenses and registrations.

With neither side getting eight votes, the issue heads for another vote on Friday. But a breakthrough on that day is far from guaranteed: Hahn, who was absent on Tuesday and Wednesday, is excused to be away from that meeting as well, Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said.

After the blitz of votes Wednesday, a longtime critic of the council, Hollywood resident John Walsh, said he was not happy with Hahn’s repeated absences. "I don't want to pay for her when she's out running for Congress," he told council members. "But then again this is a dysfunctional City Council, and I'm sure you're not paying attention."

[Updated at 12:58 p.m., June 22: Later in the meeting, the council avoided a Friday vote by sending the camera issue to its Budget and Finance Committee, a panel headed by Councilman Bernard Parks, a staunch supporter of the cameras.

Parks said his committee will study the financial effects of ending the camera program, which he said could reach $3 million. The issue will then come back to the council for -– you heard right -– more debate.]


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-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: A red-light camera at La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times