By Bob Uphues
The future of red-light cameras in Illinois appears to be in some doubt in the wake of former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleading guilty to accepting $70,000 bribes from a red-light camera company official in exchange for protecting the interests of the red-light camera industry in the Illinois General Assembly.
Sandoval remains free on bond and is cooperating with federal investigators in what appears to be a wide-ranging corruption probe involving local politicians and large contributors, including the red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC, and lobbyists.
SafeSpeed LLC operates red-light cameras in more than two dozen municipalities in northern Illinois, including River Forest, North Riverside and Berwyn, generating millions of dollars in fines, predominantly from people failing to make a complete stop before turning right.
At least one town that has partnered with SafeSpeed in recent years, Oak Lawn, has pulled the plug on the devices. Cameras in that southwest suburb went dead on Jan. 1, after the village board voted not to renew its contract with SafeSpeed, and Tinley Park's village board signaled in December that it may follow suit.
In light of the Sandoval case, officials in River Forest may soon reconsider its three red-light cameras -- one at Harlem and North avenues and two at Lake Street and Harlem Avenue.
"The village of River Forest is monitoring and reviewing the information surrounding the ongoing federal investigations related to the red light camera bribery scheme. We support efforts to eliminate corruption," said Village Administrator Eric Palm in an email response to an inquiry from Wednesday Journal.
"I anticipate discussing this item with the village board at a future meeting."
Should River Forest choose to end its red-light camera program, it would eliminate a revenue stream that's used to fund capital projects.
Over the past five years, River Forest has collected more than $4 million in red-light camera fines, according to village budget documents.
New state Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), meanwhile, is calling for a "full review of the red-light program in Illinois" after the latest revelations involving Sandoval.
"What I read in the [Sandoval] plea agreement is disgusting," Harmon said in an email to Wednesday Journal. "These cameras were meant to protect the public from irresponsible drivers. Running a red light is incredibly reckless and dangerous. That public safety goal, unfortunately, appears to have been lost.
"There is legislation already pending in the Senate for a review of red-light cameras, and I plan to talk to my colleagues to see how to best address this troubling issue."
Harmon was referencing two bills pending in the Illinois House and one in the Illinois Senate introduced last fall and still awaiting committee assignments. All three would outlaw red-light cameras and reportedly have bipartisan support.
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said that village is not planning to reconsider its red-light cameras, which also are operated by SafeSpeed and have raked in more than $10 million for the village since 2014.
The revenue, which helps fund the village's police and fire pension obligations – at about $3 million annually -- is just too important, said Hermanek.
"We are not reconsidering our view on our red light cameras, as our village abides by the law of its implementation, and should not suffer due to the improper conduct of others," Hermanek said. "Also, non-home rule villages are strapped as to revenue sources. Maybe the state can readdress the necessity of home rule vs. non-home rule, as well as meaningful pension reform, which may alleviate the dependence on revenues from red lights."
Answer Book 2019
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