If the city initiates a Chicago-wide program that ultimately affects almost every resident and potentially take money out of their pockets, shouldn’t the city or its leaders know exactly how that program works?
You might think so. But a new report released by the Office of Inspector General says Chicago’s red light camera program, touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as critical to both public safety and balancing the city’s budget, is instead a fundamentally flawed program rife with mismanagement, lack of documentation and insufficient oversight.
That’s before you even get into questions about why the program was started in the first place, where the money raised has gone or whether the City is gaming the system to help balance the budget.
The tangled tale of the city’s red light camera program is long and complicated. While there had been a pilot program in place since 2003, red light cameras got a significant boost in 2012 when Mayor Emanuel announced he was expanding the program to include upward of 40 new locations, expected to bring in $30 million in new revenue.
By then, there had already been a wealth of news reports indicating the vendor the city hired to run the program, RedFlex Traffic Systems, was mired in a bribery scandal which ended with the federal indictment of a former Redflex CEO on charges she and a top City Hall manager conspired to rig the camera business for a decade. Turns out, advocates for Redflex and the city’s red light camera program also had ties to Mayor Emanuel.
Fast forward to 2014, when a Chicago Tribune investigation found “clear evidence that a series of sudden, unexplainable spikes in Chicago’s network of 380 cameras were caused by faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.” The investigation found that either ticket procedures were quietly broadened to catch more violators, or that malfunctions led the system to wrongly tag lawful drivers.
And that’s only the half of it. More troubling, perhaps, is the possibility that, until recently, no one has seemed to really be in charge of the program.
In July, alderman of the Progressive Reform Caucus, led by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) asked the city for a flow chart of city employees involved in the program’s oversight as part of a call for Inspector General Ferguson to review the program, which the city has yet to provide.
Nevertheless, the OIG investigation, later backed by Mayor Emanuel, found “that the City’s management of the RLC program with its former vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., was fundamentally deficient.” The report specifically cites the Chicago Department of Transportation for “fail[ing] to request and review reports and data from Redflex that would likely have revealed enforcement anomalies as they occurred, and failed to fully exercise and enforce the terms of the City’s contract with Redflex.”
In other words, the city launched a program with a company mired in scandal that covered tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and then basically let them get on with the program with little to no real oversight.
This reality is supported by the OIG’s findings that CDOT and Redflex—which was replaced by another company in 2013—failed to keep proper documentation on the program that would have pointed to problems with the system’s enforcement. As well, when management of the program changed hands, Redflex computer hard drives containing vital records were wiped clean by the new company. Worse, the city never asked Redflex for copies of these records.
Throughout the Emanuel administration’s support for the program, questions have persisted whether red light cameras were simply another way for the city to rake in revenue to plug holes in the city’s budget. When he first announced the program’s expansion, Emanuel said is was all part of a “children first budget” that would fund after-school programs, summer jobs and pre-kindergarten services.
Yet, since then, there’s been little talk of where the money raised by red light cameras has gone—other than to continue to cover gaps in subsequent budgets. .
Suspicions over the city’s rationale for the red light program have been further fueled by reports the Emanuel administration “quietly issued a new, shorter yellow light standard this spring that generated 77,000 red light camera tickets that would not have been allowed before the rule change,” according to the OIG report.
All of this leads to one simple question: At what point does a city program that doesn't work, is mired in scandal, has little to no oversight and is costing taxpayers millions in suspicious fees, get shut down?
There’s more than enough indication Chicagoans are fed up with the program and its many problems, and want some kind of changes.
When does the Emanuel administration show its listening to what Chicagoans want?
Or doesn't it care?