4/25/2017Texas Judge Releases Secret Speed Camera Meeting Video
Activists secure court order to release tapes of secret speed camera negotiations between Smith County, Texas and American Traffic Solutions.
The public on Monday received a rare glimpse at the closed-door discussions that take place when politicians work with private vendor to set up a speed camera program. Judge Jack Carter, assigned to the 114th Texas District Court, last week ordered release of videos taken during closed-session meetings of the Smith County Commissioners Court. The court agreed with local activist group Grassroots America We The People that the secretive photo radar planning sessions violated state law.
"After a thorough review of such agendas and recordings, the court finds that, as it relates to deliberations about American Traffic Solutions conducted by Smith County Commissioners Court on July 8, July 29 and August 12, 2014, said portions of the closed meetings were conducted in violation of the Government Code Section 551, Texas Open Meetings Act," Judge Carter ruled.
As a result of the group's complaint, the head of the commissioners court, Judge Joel P. Baker, was arrested last year. Ultimately, Baker had no choice but to admit that he violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and step down from his job. His first mistake was to call a meeting on July 8, 2014 and order everyone out of the room besides fellow commissioners and his "friends" from American Traffic Solutions (ATS).
"I want everyone on the court to have a comfort level with this before we really push it out there publicly," Baker said at the closed-door meeting. "I think it's best for today's purposes that we don't move forward with a public presentation... I don't think we want to go into open session and have the public presentation."
The speed cameras issue is especially sensitive in Texas because the state legislature banned photo radar ten years ago in response to the attempt by Rhome and Marble Falls to set up automated speed traps on their own authority. Baker decided on his own authority that the law banned a "municipality" from using speed cameras, but not a "county."
On August 12, 2014, Baker held another closed-door meeting where he argued ATS should receive a 50 percent cut of every ticket the Arizona-based firm was able to issue. In return, ATS would get to decide where the camera vans would be located.
"The thing that really did pique our interest when we first talked about it clearly was the revenue," Baker admitted at the private meeting. "If we do this, we're not having to pay for it, and it protects kids... The money -- I mean everybody looks at the bottom line. That's something we have to do. That is a great added bonus. They would not be here talking to us if it didn't make money."
That was enough to convince all four commissioners to vote in favor of the program. Baker had a signed and fully executed contract with ATS in his hands on January 28, 2015, but the program was stopped before any tickets were issued.
Even though Baker admitted he broke the law, the Texas attorney general's office was prohibited from releasing tapes of the secret meetings without a court order. Grassroots America We The People was pleased the case can now be closed with those videos being placed online.
"We hope other elected officials will learn from this unfortunate chapter in Smith County history and make every effort not to repeat it," the group said in a statement last Thursday.