Scottsdale Red-Light Camera Firm Stands Behind Astroturf Campaign in Mukilteo

Article by Erik Smith. Published on Tuesday, August 24, 2010 EST.

Way, Way Behind It — ‘Citizens Group’ is Out Front, and Faux Campaign Opposes Real One

 



By Erik Smith

Staff writer/ Washington State Wire

 

OLYMPIA, Aug. 24.—In political circles, there’s a phrase people use when a citizens’ campaign starts throwing its weight around – and then it turns out there aren’t any citizens behind it.

            They call it “Astroturf lobbying.”

            You know. Fake grass roots.

            In Washington’s capital city, everyone knows the tactic on sight, and on smell. But now it seems it’s come to one of the sleepier hamlets in the state, the town of Mukilteo, where a faux-populist movement is battling a real one – an effort to keep the city government from installing traffic cameras around town.

A band of anti-camera activists has teamed with initiative promoter Tim Eyman to put a measure on the ballot this fall. It would reverse the council’s decision, force a public vote on similar measures in the future, and limit fines to $20.

On the other side, a group – if that’s the right word for it – calling itself Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government has filed a lawsuit that aims to keep the initiative from the November ballot. And there’s something a little funny about that. Backers of the initiative say it sure looks like the Arizona company that supplies the town with traffic cameras is behind the whole thing.

            That probably doesn’t put things strongly enough. In making the charge, the red-light opponents have put Google to work, uncovering a motherlode of websites tailored for every city where a red-light camera initiative has made the ballot, or where automated cameras have come in for serious public scrutiny. In Mukilteo and 17 other cities, each website appears to be sponsored by a citizens’ group; each one uses identical wording on its content pages; each web domain name is owned by the same company, Advarion, Inc., of Houston, TX.

In other states, campaign disclosure documents reveal that Advarion is one of the contractors providing services to pro-camera campaigns financed by American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz. And the main reason these facts must be mentioned in such a roundabout way is that Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government still hasn’t gotten around to filing campaign disclosure documents with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which presumably would make its backing clear.

A sophisticated corporate effort to mold public opinion?

Hardly, says Eyman. For some reason, ATS isn’t saying much about its involvement in the Mukilteo campaign. But in this age of Internet search engines, when information is available at a few keystrokes, it’s hard to keep a secret. “You’d think they would do a better job of covering their tracks,” he said.

 

            Slamming On the Brakes

 

American Traffic Solutions certainly has a fight on its hands. Those same Google searches turn up hundreds of references to battles just like the one in Mukilteo, in communities across the country. Ten anti-camera initiatives have appeared on municipal ballots in the United States, in cities where initiative campaigns are permitted. In every one of them, the cameras have lost.

The cameras snap photos of license plates a millisecond after the lights have changed, or when someone speeds through a school zone. A police officer reviews each photo; the tickets go out in the mail. In Washington some 21 cities have installed cameras since the Legislature authorized them in 2005 – 113 at intersections and 28 along roadways. About half are maintained by ATS.

Backers claim cameras improve safety, because they encourage motorists to drive carefully, and they cite industry studies that show a decrease in intersection accidents where cameras are installed. Over time, the number of tickets issued in a camera-equipped intersection typically goes down as well.

Whether the cameras actually improve safety is a matter of debate. State Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a police officer for 20 years and the cameras’ biggest opponent in the state Legislature, points out that the stats don’t measure accidents on the other side of the crosswalk. Rear-enders go up because motorists slam on the brakes when they see a yellow, he said.

 

           Populist Movement Brewing

 

Whatever the case arguments, what counts is that there’s a political backlash brewing. Hurst hears it every time he goes on talk radio and the calls start pouring in. Wherever cameras go, furor follows. So far 15 states have banned them. “It’s only a matter of time before they’re banned everywhere,” he said.

American Traffic Solutions presents surveys showing 70 to 80 percent support for the cameras – 78 percent in Seattle – and Hurst doesn’t buy them for a second. His mail runs 100-to-one against.

Reminds him a little of the studies and surveys done by the big tobacco companies in the ’50s and the ’60s, he said. “You know, when they said smoking was healthy for you.”

The important point is that people don’t think the cameras are about safety, he said. They’re about money – the modern computerized equivalent of the old-time speed trap.

“The cameras are like crack cocaine,” he said. “Cities put them in because they make a fortune off them. After a while they get hooked on the money and they don’t care about the safety issue.”

            Even worse, Hurst said some Washington traffic judges have gone out with stopwatches and have timed the yellow lights in camera-equipped intersections. The national standard is three seconds. Where there are red-light cameras, they’re as low as 1.7 seconds. Gotcha!

 

            War Comes to Mukilteo

 

            Hurst introduced a bill this year that would have essentially put the cameras out of business. It would have required a four-second yellow-light time at camera-equipped intersections, and it would have limited the fine to the amount a city charges for its least-expensive parking ticket. That’s what the Legislature meant to do in 2005, Hurst said.

            Impose a limit on tickets of, say, 20 bucks, and the cameras don’t make economic sense, Hurst said — and that’s fine by him. But it wasn’t fine with the city officials who came before the House Transportation Committee this year to protest. “To lower the amount [of the fine] is to reward people who speed through red lights and who endanger lives,” said Seattle councilman Nick Licata.

            Seattle made $2 million from red-light cameras last year.

            The bill died.

            That’s where Tim Eyman comes in. The state’s leading initiative promoter happens to live in Mukilteo, a 18,000-population suburb of either Seattle or Everett, depending on how you look at it, a town known mainly for its ferryboat terminal on the shore of Puget Sound. When the city council this year decided to install red-light cameras, Eyman held his finger to the wind. It’s an issue that could go statewide, he said.

            “It’s like big business,” he said. “It’s not popular with the left and it’s not popular with the right. Are we in favor of big government, fines and surveillance? I think it’s like almost everything else in this country – it’s out of control.”

            A little Googling put Eyman in touch with an anti-camera group based in Puyallup, Bancams.com. Together they collected 2,900 signatures for what was only the second initiative campaign in the city’s history. Stupefied city officials reluctantly allowed the measure to advance to the ballot.

 

            A Mysterious Campaign

 

            Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government sprang from nowhere last month to file a lawsuit against the initiative. Its brief contends Mukilteo voters have no right to decide the issue – it’s a state matter. A Superior Court judge rejected the argument, and the decision is heading for an appeal before the state Supreme Court.

            But who’s paying for it?

            The suit names Mukilteo resident Christine Preston as plaintiff. Neither she nor her organization is listed in any telephone directory, nor does a phone number appear on the campaign website. Because no documents have been filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission regarding the political campaign effort, no contact numbers are available through that agency. The Mukilteo Citizens – or citizen – never responded to an email request for an interview.

            The camera opponents note that Preston is represented by Stoel Rives of Seattle, the same law firm that has represented American Traffic Solutions in other Washington-state legal matters.

A query to American Traffic Solutions brought this email response, from director of communications Chris Begala: “It is already a matter of public record that ATS is proudly standing with Christine Preston and the majority of Washingtonians who support the use of intersection safety cameras.  We are pleased to help facilitate the delivery of factual information for Washingtonians to consider as they decide the best way to promote traffic safety in their communities.”

             Meanwhile, ATS’ financial backing this year for a pro-camera campaign in Houston, Texas is made clear because campaign-disclosure documents have been filed in that state. There a similar initiative is on the ballot, and a similar website is up and running.

 

            It Gets Worse

 

            Oh, but there’s more. Nick Sherwood and his wife Tiffany, operators of the Bancams website, have been Googling everything they can find. They say they’ve uncovered what appears to be a coordinated effort to influence public opinion on the Web. For instance, when stories about anti-camera campaigns show up in local newspapers, the same observation always seems to appear in comment sections, with the same wording, even the same missing comma. It contains this line:

Seriously, you don’t hear non-smokers complain about cigarette taxes so why should we believe these whiners are anything but reckless drivers who don’t want to get caught?”

It’s shown up hundreds of times, everywhere from The (Everett) Herald to the Washington Post. Sometimes there’s a name attatched to the posting, sometimes there’s a local-sounding pseudonym like “Old Tusconite” or “Titanvols” – it makes sense in Nashville, where that one showed up. Google the sentence and it turns up too many times to count. Then Google some of those names and you’ll find many more postings, all making similar pro-camera arguments.

There’s also the strange thing that happened when the Sherwoods went on vacation for a week. They have a “poll” on their website that asks visitors if they think cameras are about safety or money. When they left, it stood at 30 for safety and 700 for money. When they got back, it was 930 for safety. They traced the extra 900 votes to a single computer server in India. It used a program to change the IP address by one digit each time a vote was cast. Same thing happened with a similar poll on an anti-camera website in Baytown, Texas.

Keep in mind the Sherwoods can’t prove who was behind those efforts. But after uncovering all those “citizens-group” websites, they say their suspicions are heightened, to be sure.

“Somewhere there’s a group of people sitting around and trying to convince people cameras are a good idea,” Mr. Sherwood said. “My 12-year-old told me it’s like the puffer fish. There’s not much to it.”

            For the record, Sherwood’s group can claim a greater level of legitimacy, in today’s Webby way. Its site has 1,016 Facebook Friends.

Side-by-Side Website Comparison

These screenshots, taken from the Bancams website, show similarities — and in most cases, the exact same wording — from pro-camera websites in Mukilteo and across the country. For access to the links, go to www.bancams.com.

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