Investigation sought into county school zone camera plan

 

A complaint with the Texas Attorney General's Office has been filed by Grassroots America—We The People against County Judge Joel Baker over his plan to place unmanned cameras in school zones. The group is requesting a full investigation by the AG's office.

JoAnn Fleming, a former Smith County commissioner and the executive director of the group, filed the six-page complaint late Wednesday. It is focused on the county's contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the county's process in selecting the company and the Texas Open Meetings Act.

"I'd like to see a course correction by the county judge and commissioners," Mrs. Fleming said. "And that would take the form of having agendas and meetings that comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act. We've warned them several times about it. And we need to get some kind of verification on where we stand with this contract. I think we've raised enough questions that this contract may not be legal or enforceable. It just depends on how far the vendor wants to take it."

Judge Baker was not available for comment late Wednesday.

The complaint lists nine separate concerns the group has with the program. The first questions the constitutionality of speed zone cameras. The group cites an Attorney General Opinion (GA-0846), prohibiting municipalities from implementing "an automated traffic control system with respect to a highway or street under its jurisdiction for the purpose of enforcing compliance with posted speed limits."

The complaint reads, "Counties, unlike cities, have no general ordinance-making authority; therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that if municipalities are prohibited from implementing speed cameras, counties are definitely on tenuous legal grounds to enter into a contract for such a system."

The second concern is whether the Texas Open Meetings Act was violated when county commissioners discussed the cameras program in executive session, and whether the county abided by state law in signing a contract with ATS.

"Because of the way this matter was stated on the agenda, discussed in the closed session, and treated in the open portion of the meeting (where a vote was taken), a member of the public had no way of knowing what was actually taking place with this traffic camera project," the complaint reads. "A contract or agreement executed out of compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act is in legal jeopardy."

The complaint questions the terms of the contract — the cost of cameras to Smith County is substantially higher than the cost per camera incurred by nearby Kaufman County, the complaint points out.

And it questions whether there's been a breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the county. It expresses concerns over the lack of a bidding process.

A fifth concern is whether the program violates the law by having the Smith County Fire Marshal's Office oversee the cameras. The Texas Transportation Code says traffic enforcement must work under the sheriff's office, the complaint contends.

Mrs. Fleming's complaint also points out the lack of buy-in from local law enforcement, school districts and even other county officials, such as Tax Assessor/Collector Gary Barber.

"A signed contract without local buy-in seems to indicate that taxpayers may incur stiff financial penalties and fees as outlined in the agreement," the complaint reads.

There's also no statutory authority for the county to issue civil citations for school zone infractions, the complaint adds.

Finally, it points out numerous instances of Judge Baker's public statements being at odds with the wording of the contract.

"Neither the spirit of the law nor the letter of the law … have been met by the Smith County Commissioners Court in this situation," the complaint reads. "We have therefore asked for a full investigation by the Office of the Texas Attorney General."

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