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Traffic camera

Traffic moves past an automated speed camera in 2015 in the northbound lanes of Interstate 29 in Sioux City.

DES MOINES — An Iowa House panel approved a measure Wednesday that would ban automated traffic cameras — including those in Sioux City — and end what one legislator called “legalized grifting.”

House Study Bill 512 would void local ordinances authorizing the use of traffic cameras as of July 1 and order their removal in eight cities and one county where they are used.

The use of the cameras may have been well-intentioned, said Daniel Zeno of the ACLU of Iowa, “but we don’t have to give up due process for safety. We can have both.”

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said two sheriffs in his district “wholeheartedly” oppose the cameras, “so I will stand with the police and the ACLU.”

In this case, Heartsill said, law enforcement is being outsourced to private vendors who are not sworn to uphold the law.

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, who was on that city’s council when traffic cameras were installed there, defended their use and said the process for people to contest their citations protects due process.

Meyer found irony in the partisan split on the issue.

“In this bizzaro world, Democrats will stand with the police and Republicans are standing with the ACLU,” he said.

The cameras have generated millions of dollars in revenues for Sioux City, which has used the money for public safety projects. But the city for years has been fighting an Iowa Department of Transportation administrative order to remove five cameras on state-controlled roads within the city, including two Interstate 29 speed cameras.

The fate of Sioux City's cameras is tied to a lawsuit over a similar DOT order to remove cameras in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine. 

The bill approved Wednesday would not invalidate citations issued before July 1. That would allow Cedar Rapids, for instance, to continue trying to collect on citations issued before the cameras were turned off in 2017 while the Iowa Supreme Court debates the issue.

Just before Christmas, the city mailed out 221,000 notices seeking payment for $17.3 million worth of unpaid tickets, some from 2010 when the speed and red light cameras were first activated.

That helped convince some lawmakers the cameras were more about earning revenue than ensuring safety.

“Don’t tell me it’s not about revenue,” said the lawmaker who compared the cameras to legalized swindling, Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Chariton. As evidence, he read from one city’s contract that notes any change in state law to curtail the revenue stream would be grounds for the private camera vendor to terminate the deal.

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HSB 512, which may get a hearing Monday in the full Local Government Committee, is similar to Senate Study Bill 3025 sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun. He led an unsuccessful effort to ban the cameras last session.

If HSB 512 is approved, Iowa would be the first state to enact an outright ban on traffic cameras, said David Adelman, representing the Metro Alliance of the 10 largest Iowa cities.

Lindsey McCune of the Iowa League of Cities and others cited the need for local control as a reason for rejecting HSB 512. Cities that choose to use cameras for “traffic calming” and enforcement should have that prerogative, she said.

But Local Government Chairman Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, found it curious that cities cite local control when they want to use cameras on roads paid for with state tax dollars to generate local revenue. If cities want local control, he said, perhaps the state should stop “backfill” payments to make up for lost property tax revenues.

McCune encouraged subcommittee members to look at Senate File 220 as a “reasonable compromise.” Approved 31-18 by the Senate last year, the bill would keep the cameras but subject them to stricter regulations.

Although the House did not go along with that approach last year, SF 220 will get a hearing Thursday by a House Transportation subcommittee that may be more receptive to it.

Transportation Chairman Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, has indicated a preference for regulation over a ban. He believes traffic cameras are an “efficient tool” for traffic control and the decision whether to use them should be left to local governments.

“Our law enforcement is valuable and having officers sit in cars to monitor traffic may not be the best use of their time,” Carlson said.

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