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Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider believes he has seized the initiative to turn back a red-light-camera program with the legal finding that the county can't arbitrarily impose it on municipalities.
County Board President Todd Stroger and Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, both Chicago Democrats, have pushed the program by insisting that the county could press the responsibility for maintaining an intersection on any municipality that rejected placing a red-light camera there. High maintenance costs would all but force local governments to accept the controversial cameras wherever the county wanted to place them. Both Stroger and Moreno said they had the legal backing of the Cook state's attorney's office on that opinion.
Yet Schneider received a letter earlier this month from Deputy State's Attorney Patrick Driscoll Jr., liaison to the county board, stating that "no such opinion exists."
Schneider hopes the legal opinion stops the proposed county-run red-light cameras in their tracks, though the issue could come up again before the county board as soon as Tuesday.
"The written opinion only restated what we already knew, what I thought to be the case, that it did require a joint decision between the county and the local municipality to either trade roads or give up any roadways," said the Bartlett Republican. "The fact of the matter is, they had no legs to stand on."
Schneider didn't accuse Stroger and Moreno of outright lying on the issue, but he did call it "a reckless decision they came to that had no basis in fact or law."
Stroger spokesman Chris Geovanis, who originally stated the opinion that the county could compel participation by threatening to force maintenance for contested intersections on local governments, has since said that was just an advisory opinion on a proposed amendment.
"President Stroger's administration remains committed to working within the spirit of Cook County law, and we continue to review options for next steps as we work to move ahead with this pilot safety project," Geovanis said.
Moreno did not return a call for comment.
Many Cook localities, such as Schaumburg, which has already tried and rejected its own red-light-camera program, were briefly up in arms over the county ultimatum.
"In the end," Schneider said, "all it did was cause a great deal of anguish with many of the municipalities and in some cases the expense of taxpayer money to explore the legal aspects of it."
Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson confirmed he had Village Attorney Jack Siegel working on the matter, and Siegel determined "in any case where there's a difference in ordinances between a county and a municipality, the municipal ordinance will prevail."
Larson said he figures the Stroger administration "was just misinformed." But, he said, "If I have to rely on a legal opinion, I'd prefer to rely on Jack Siegel's knowledge of the law rather than Todd Stroger's."
Larson has already joined with state Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat, in calling on Stroger to take a more moderate approach to imposing red-light cameras where they aren't wanted.
"The initiative behind this has as much to do with lobbyists for red-light cameras as it does with Cook County," Larson said. "They're pushing it because for every town that rejects red-light cameras, there's less revenue for the folks who provide that service."
"It reduces the revenue aspect of the red-light camera program substantially, which I still maintain is the only reason these red-light cameras were installed," Schneider said. Although Stroger and Moreno have both insisted it's a safety issue, Schneider added, "In the back room, it's all about the money (and) far less to do about safety.
"Whether the state's attorney's opinion was enough to put the nail in the coffin of those who think they can bully these municipalities into forcing them into a red-light-camera program they don't want, I don't know," he said. "But I think they're going down a road where they don't have any legal backing. They should just let it go at this point."
The red-light cameras gained the approval of a majority of the county board as a one-year pilot program for 20 or 30 intersections, but Schneider was out to nip it in the bud.
"Once this pilot program, they see how this goes, and get all the bugs worked out, they're going to expand this program countywide," he said. "So you're not going to see 20 cameras, you're going to see 200 or 300, and I want to stop that from happening."