Washington Teen Crusades Against Ticketing Traffic Cams

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Josh Sutinen isn't old enough to vote and only got his driver's license last month, but he's already among the leaders in a growing national backlash against cameras that issue traffic tickets.

The 17-year-old has worked for most of this year - frequently on school nights - pushing an initiative to ban Longview's new red-light and speed cameras. He's now in the final stages of a signature-collection effort that has him fighting city council and asking fellow citizens to join his crusade.

"These cameras are really just another big government attack on our rights," Sutinen said in an interview. "It's just taxation through citation."

Sutinen's plan is one of four similar ballot proposals around Washington this year. Voters in more than a dozen cities nationwide have passed referendums banning the cameras while nine states now prohibit them.

Officials in Los Angeles, where a single ticket can cost hundreds of dollars, moved this week to end a camera program there. Opponents question whether the cameras actually improve safety, noting that many citations are issued to drivers who simply don't fully stop as they take free right turns at red lights. They also believe governments are largely using the cameras as a revenue source.

Washington's activists hope to repeat the local success that state initiative guru Tim Eyman had in his hometown of Mukilteo last year. A group in Bellingham turned in nearly 7,000 signatures this week, and a movement in Redmond is still collecting.

Some city leaders are fighting to save the programs: On Tuesday night, Monroe officials moved to block an initiative from the ballot after promoters got enough signatures validated.

The Longview plan led by Sutinen needs about 2,800 signatures and to win a legal battle against the city. Supporters have turned in 3,628 but believe they will need hundreds more in the coming weeks after officials finish sorting through which ones are valid.

Longview has about a dozen cameras covering three intersections and two school zones. Mayor Kurt Anagnostou said he is sensitive to the concerns about the cameras and initially opposed them himself - until he got feedback from the public about red-light runners and intersection accidents.

"I heard from enough citizens that we have a problem in Longview," Anagnostou said. "They changed my opinion."

The city began a one-year trial of the cameras this year, and Anagnostou said the program has made people more aware at intersections.

Sutinen is certainly aware. He avoids the traffic cameras at all costs, taking detours that extend his three-mile commute to five. Even before he had a driver's license, Sutinen said he hated the idea of the cameras and sought help from Eyman, who provided the initiative's wording.

Comparatively, local initiatives in Washington can be more challenging that statewide ones because they typically require activists to gather signatures equaling 15 percent of voters registered in the area during the previous election. Statewide initiatives require signatures totaling 8 percent of the number of people who voted for governor in the previous election.

Supporters believe the proposals in Longview, Monroe and Redmond would be the first local initiatives to reach the ballot in those cities.

Longview leaders are looking to block the proposal, contending that the issue is not subject to the initiative process. They have instead proposed that the public take an advisory vote on the matter.

The nine states that have banned red-light cameras are Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona did not renew its speed enforcement camera program last year. Several other states have passed laws limiting the use of camera enforcement.

Sutinen's father, Tim Sutinen, said his son approached him late last year asking if he wanted to sponsor an initiative on the street cameras. The older Sutinen declined, saying he didn't have the time to pursue it.

So Josh Sutinen took it on himself.

Tim Sutinen said he was proud of his son for taking a stand but also felt sorry for him during the weeks he spent standing outside of stores in freezing, wet weather trying to gather signatures.

"It's miserable, and there's not much thanks for it," Sutinen said. "But he did it. He has the tenacity and the perseverance to do it."

The younger Sutinen said he hopes others will see that the initiatives are possible and consider additional ones in the future as a way to keep local government in check.

"I would love to have more of these," Sutinen said. "It would be awesome."

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