This wacky warbler has but one wish for the New Year. No, not peace on Earth. Not for a gazillion-dollar Powerball win. Not even to awaken one day on a tropical island next to a bikini-clad Kate Winslet and a nearby shipwreck full of the good ganja.
Nah, what The Bird longs for most in 2009 is an end to photo enforcement's Stalinist grip on Arizona's roadways. Initially, this seemed a lost cause. Outgoing Governor Janet Napolitano had sold the state's freeways kit and caboodle to the Australian company Redflex, with which the Arizona Department of Public Safety has its contract. Our beloved Sand Land had thereby fallen under Redflex's all-seeing Mordor-like eye.
Enter the Bird's new hero, Paul Babeu, the newly elected sheriff of Pinal County and the first-ever Republican to hold that position. This November, Babeu defeated incumbent Democrat Chris Vasquez, campaigning on a platform that included an end to the county's contract with Redflex. And by the time he was sworn in on January 2, Babeu had informed Redflex that the Pinal County Sheriff's Office would no longer be signing off on the citations produced from the three photo-radar vans Redflex operated in the county. (The company has no stationary cameras in Pinal.)
"We have ended photo radar for speeding [in Pinal County]," the new sheriff told the anti-photo enforcement Web site CameraFraud.com in a YouTube video that made news across the state and beyond. "Photo radar's last days are now behind us, because they ended on the First of January."
The boldness of Babeu's move was that he had single-handedly ended the county's agreement with Redflex by refusing to participate in it. According to Babeu, Redflex cannot issue citations for Pinal without the sheriff's sign-off. So even though there's time left on Redflex's contract with Pinal, Babeu's put the kibosh on all future Redflex tickets.
(The three-member Pinal County Board of Supervisors was set to vote on sending a formal notice of termination to Redflex on January 7, which is after New Times goes to press.)
According to Pinal County Judge Dennis Lusk, whose court oversees such citations, there have been more than 7,000 Redflex tickets that have come through his court since the program began in 2007, and though Lusk would offer no opinion on Babeu's move, there have to be some in Pinal who'll be sad to see that revenue stream ended. Along those lines, Redflex flack Shoba Vaitheeswaran did not return this raven's repeated calls for comment.
As for the DPS, which separately from the Sheriff's Office oversees its own Redflex roving photo-enforcement vans in the county, Lieutenant James Warriner told The Bird that Babeu's move changes nothing for his department, insisting, "We will still be operating our cameras on state and federal highways as mandated by the governor and state legislators."
Babeu acknowledged that the DPS had the right to operate inside his county, but he deplored the "corrupting influence" of government entities partnering with private vendors like the Aussie firm Redflex, or its homegrown competitor American Traffic Solutions.
"It's almost Orwellian, taking out the human element," Babeu told The Bird, using idealistic language rarely heard from politicians these days. "This is the beauty of our republic, that we have real-life police officers or deputies that have discretion — discretion that is built into the law. When we take out that discretion, it's very clear to me that the whole reason behind this issue is money."
Babeu called on incoming Governor Jan Brewer to "do the right thing." By that, he means ending the state's partnership with Redflex and bringing down cameras that have been popping up all over like some evil weed. As for arguments by the DPS that photo enforcement decreases traffic fatalities, Babeu pointed to criticisms of recent DPS studies by AAA that suggested such findings might be flawed.
The straight-shooting new sheriff dismissed concerns that government needs the money from this revenue stream because of harsh economic times. It's unfair, Babeu suggested, for government to seek to balance its budget on the backs of citizens.
"Government has a responsibility, just like each of us," Babeu stressed, "to tighten its belt. Become more efficient. Set fiscal priorities . . . I have full faith in our new Legislature and our new governor. I think they should reject [photo enforcement] out of hand. This $100 million or whatever DPS is going to create for them is dirty money."
Anti-Babeu bloggers and other opponents have claimed that there's a bit of self-interest mixed in with Babeu's high-minded, libertarian rhetoric. They call Babeu an unrepentant speed demon and point to Redflex tickets that Babeu's received previously, one of which Babeu returned to Redflex, telling the company he wasn't the one driving and that the photo was so blurry the driver couldn't be made out.