The court of appeals has overturned a lower court decision against the city of Monroe in the matter of a voters’ initiative regarding traffic cameras.
A Snohomish County judge in February of last year ruled that the city was right when it argued that a voters’ initiative couldn’t change traffic laws, including traffic camera laws.
But he said that Monroe was wrong about fighting one part of the initiative, and ordered the city to pay damages to the people who filed the initiative.
The city attorney disagreed with the ruling and the city decided to appeal.
Monday, the city found out that it had won.
“Today, the Washington Court of Appeals finally put to rest one of the longest-running legal sagas in the city of Monroe’s history,” said Monroe Mayor Robert Zimmerman.
The saga begins
In 2007, Monroe’s city council, acting on the results of a study that showed traffic speeding to be high in the school zones on Main Street and Fryelands Boulevard, approved a contract with Redflex, a traffic ticketing camera company, to place as many as 10 cameras in town.
But the project was delayed until 2010 due to construction and other issues. Cameras began to be placed in fall of 2010.
In January of 2011, Tim Eyman came to town and partnered with local activists’ group Seeds of Liberty to run a voters’ initiative against Monroe’s traffic camera program. Monroe was one of four cities in which Tim Eyman took simultaneous action against traffic cameras.
The activists worked hard to gather the required number of signatures, and eventually contacted every home in the city, getting enough signatures to qualify just before the deadline.
That meant that Monroe had to put the initiative on the ballot so that everyone could vote on it.
The initiative had several parts.
One part demanded that the ordinance allowing the current contract with the camera company be rescinded. Another part demanded that no such contract be signed again without voter approval. And a third part demanded a non-binding advisory ballot on whether voters wanted traffic cameras before any future ordinance allowing them was written.
Monroe’s lawyer didn’t think that was legal.
City loses in county court
Only certain things can be governed by advisory ballots. For example, you can’t run a ballot to raise the speed limit to 80, or to lower the drinking age.
The city attorney didn’t think you could change traffic safety programs, either, such as taking out traffic ticketing cameras.
So the city sued for a declaratory judgment. The city didn’t ask for money from the people who filed the initiative; it wasn’t that kind of suit. But it did ask the judge to declare whether or not the initiative was legal.
That stopped the initiative from going to voters until the legality of the initiative was decided.
A year ago in February, the Snohomish County judge agreed with Monroe’s attorney, and said that initiatives didn’t have power over traffic camera programs.
But the judge said that the city made a mistake by not dividing the initiative into its parts, and running the part that didn’t try to change the program.
The part calling for an advisory ballot should have gone to the ballot instead of to the judge, he said.
And, he said, because it didn’t, Monroe was guilty of using a lawsuit to keep a legal initiative from voters. That meant Monroe was liable for a SLAPP settlement, meaning Monroe had to pay damages to the people who filed the initiative.
The attorney for Seeds of Liberty offered the city a settlement requiring all traffic tickets issued by the cameras to be lowered to the amount equal to the least expensive parking fine in the city, and fines and attorney costs of about $27,000.
But Monroe filed an appeal instead, believing that it was illogical to expect a city to be able to predict which parts of an initiative would pass legal review and which wouldn’t, and then put those that were likely to pass legal review on the ballot.
Monday, the city learned it had won.
The appeals court judges decided that, because the initiative called for advisory ballots specifically on the matter of traffic cameras, that made cameras the subject of the initiative and therefore not something over which initiative law had power.
“Section 3 of proposed Monroe Initiative No. 1 mandating that any ordinance authorizing the use of automated traffic safety cameras be put to an advisory vote, has as its subject matter automated traffic safety cameras. Accordingly Section 3 of proposed Monroe Initiative No. 1 is invalid beyond the scope of local initiative power,” the ruling read.
The court also vacated the Superior Court award of attorney fees, costs and the $10,000 penalty to Seeds of Liberty.
That vindicated the city’s position, said Monroe Mayor Robert Zimmerman.
“By unanimously ruling in the city’s favor in the Monroe v. Seeds of Liberty case, the appellate court reversed the negative aspects of Superior Court’s original decision and held that the traffic camera initiative filed by Seeds of Liberty and other sponsors was invalid in its entirety,” said Zimmerman.
The case will be important to more cities than just Monroe, Zimmerman added.
“The importance of this victory extends far beyond the immediate facts of the camera dispute,” he said. “The court’s decision reaffirms the fundamental role of the city council as the lawful representative of local citizens, and it reiterates that outside parties cannot co-opt or hijack the city’s legislative process in disregard of the law.”
But Eyman called it disappointing.
“It was a huge surprise,” he said. “Advisory votes aren’t even allowed. That lower court judge said, ‘Hey, the advisory ballot is not binding, so that’s okay. That’s not interfering with legislative authority; that’s just giving a opinion.’ This says you can’t even express an opinion. Wow.”
He also criticized Monroe’s decision to fight rather than just pay the settlement.
“It’s interesting the city spent $86,000 on the lawsuit,” he said. “They were looking at a quarter of that amount for the settlement.”
But on the whole, the city is still in the black on the traffic cameras.
In the first year of their use alone, the city cleared $126,000 in revenue.
Contract ends this year
Eyman said the loss clearly illustrates the need for his latest initiative, Initiative 517, which would force cities to run all initiatives that get the necessary number of signatures, then sort the legality out later.
“A decent example, to highlight the need, Initiative 502 was the marijuana initiative, and everyone said it’s obviously illegal,” said Eyman. “If had been a local initiative, the voters would have been prohibited from voting on it.”
Ty Balascio, who spearheaded the Seeds of Liberty effort to defeat the cameras, said he’d already resigned himself to the loss of the money he spent on legal costs.
Now he said he just hopes that when the traffic camera contract expires this year, the city won’t renew it.
In the last two years, as the court battle went on, there have been two advisory ballots on the cameras and in both cases, citizens overwhelmingly told the city they wanted the program to end.
“I don’t regret the fight. I think the city was out of touch and the two votes affirmed it,” Balascio said. “When the question comes up about renewing the camera contract, I hope our city remembers that 70 percent doesn’t want these things in our town.”