Aug. 3 deadline issued
By Samantha Phillips
Several Mahoning Valley communities are consulting their law directors after the Ohio Department of Transportation ordered them to remove speed-camera signs and equipment from state highways by Aug. 3.
Those communities – Youngstown, Girard and the townships of Hubbard, Weathersfield, Liberty and Howland – use speed-camera programs on state Routes 11, 82, 304, Interstate 80 and 76.
The letter cited state law, which says signage or objects can’t be placed or maintained on highways without a permit issued by the ODOT director.
It also states the ODOT director will order removal of property that obstructs a highway or interferes with construction.
Girard, Youngstown, Liberty and Weathersfield did not have permits for their speed cameras and signage, according to the ODOT letters.
Hubbard and Howland did, but their sign permits for Route 82 and Route 304 were canceled.
“The director has decided to exercise the discretion to not permit placement of speed enforcement cameras or related signage in ODOT right of way or on ODOT owned structure,” the letter explained.
The director’s orders don’t address handheld cameras on highways. Matt Bruning, ODOT press secretary, said the ODOT orders only affect cameras mounted on the highway.
That leaves the question of hand-held cameras – and the surrounding controversy – unanswered.
Atty. Marc Dann filed a class-action lawsuit against Girard on behalf of citizens he argued were wrongfully ticketed from the cameras after the speed limit was changed but ODOT didn’t change the signs.
Liberty has been one of the epicenters on handheld cameras. Liberty’s former legal counsel, Mark Finamore, advised against their use. Cherry Poteet, Liberty township’s current legal counsel, reversed that decision and said the township could use cameras on the highways.
SEE ALSO: Liberty trustees approve speed cameras
Finamore, who still serves as Hubbard Township’s legal counsel, said it was his original legal opinion that state law prohibits townships with a population under 50,000 to use speed cameras on highways, so he advised the Liberty trustees last year not to do. He said Poteet interpreted the code differently, based on the state attorney general opinions.
“It’s not a black-or-white issue. You could make a plausible legal argument both ways,” he said. “Now, what everyone has to do is look at it and say OK, now that the letter is out and they have to take the signs down, how does that now affect our ability [to use speed cameras].”
Youngstown officials argue the letters don’t prohibit them from using the speed cameras at all.
Girard Mayor James Melfi said the city will take down the signage as soon as possible, but, “we certainly plan to run the cameras. I interpret the letter as just affecting signage.”
He said he suspects the order was a byproduct of “anti-speed camera campaign legislation” from the state House of Representatives.
Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees said he is curious about why the issue took so long to be raised.
He said he has reached out to the city’s legislators in the statehouse to see if they can help the city.
When Youngstown uses the cameras, Lees said they are always used by a uniformed officer in a marked police car. He credited the cameras for helping make Interstate 680 safer, saying the number of accidents have decreased by 30 percent.
Youngstown Law Director Jeff Limbian said based on state code, he believes it’s still possible to use photo enforcement on interstates if there is “significant signage” in the city, even if the signs aren’t on the interstate.
In Liberty, the speed-camera program just expanded to highways this year.
Township Administrator Pat Ungaro said, “I guess we aren’t allowed to do what everyone has been doing for three years.”
Ungaro said he is waiting for the township’s legal counsel,
Howland Police Chief Nick Roberts said township officials provided Howland’s legal advisor, Atty. Jason Toth, with the information the township received from ODOT, and Toth is researching the matter.
Roberts said he expects Toth to provide an answer fairly soon, but the township will not be making any changes in its traffic-camera program until after Toth provides guidance.
Contributors: Staff writers Joe Gorman and Ed Runyan