Not a fan of traffic cameras? Meet your new best friend

Maryanne Petranek learned to drive while she was still wearing the green plaid skirt that was her uniform at Regina High School. In the 39 years since, she has racked up no traffic tickets. "But I have had people accuse me of not liking safe roads," she says.

Though she has her detractors, Petranek mostly finds allies in her quest to rid Northeast Ohio of photo-enforcement cameras. In the last year, she has led a charge across area suburbs afflicted by them.

"Oh, her," says a worker at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, speaking on condition of anonymity — and with a tone that says she knows exactly which citizen crusader we're talking about. "She's a nice lady. She's very intelligent and articulate. That's really all I can say."

Locally, traffic cameras are found in Cleveland, East Cleveland, South Euclid, and Parma. Until recently, Garfield Heights had them too. Then along came Petranek, and Garfield voters overturned the cameras in November.

Now she's focused on spearheading the camera-banning effort in Cleveland, deploying volunteers and tracking their progress as they gather the 8,200 signatures necessary by summer to get their issue on the ballot in November 2011. So far, she's about halfway there.

If successful, her efforts will take about $5.5 million per year out of the hands of Cleveland government and return it to the hands of the people. Such causes have a way of engendering goodwill.

"God bless her," says Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, who has voted against traffic cameras at every possible turn. "I'd sign that petition."

Garfield Heights resident Frank Wagner was part of the committee that successfully campaigned to ban the cameras there. Now he's toting clipboards around Cleveland to help with its abolishment drive. "Almost nobody refuses to sign," he says.

Unity in traffic-camera opposition cuts across political lines. Petranek, a former rehabilitation specialist who worked with senior citizens, got the movement rolling last winter by hosting an event at the Beachland. It was targeted at Tea Partiers and Libertarians — Petranek calls herself a "Constitutionalist" — but drew interest from all corners.

Out of the meeting arose volunteer groups aimed at eliminating the dreaded cameras in all four communities that have them. Petranek believes each city will get the issue on their 2011 ballots, and that they will emerge victorious.

"We're 14 and 0!" she beams, referring to the track record of anti-traffic-camera ballot initiatives across the country., a website that tracks efforts to remove cameras nationwide, confirms the rate of success.

How does she do it? Petranek starts each campaign by poring over the city charter to find out exactly what is required of a ballot coup; when anti-camera movements fail, it's usually because of a technicality. She's also laid the groundwork for future efforts, creating a step-by-step how-to guide for busting through the bureaucratic roadblocks that line the road to traffic-camera eradication.

To Petranek, the cameras are nothing more than municipal cash grabs — not a means of bolstering safety, as supporters invariably claim. She points to the fact that tickets issued by the cameras result in a civil offense, rather than the criminal offense that applies when a police officer writes a ticket.

The distinction is telling, she says: Traffic-camera tickets don't show up as points against the offender's driver's license. That means no matter how many tickets a person gets from a photo-enforcement camera, the scofflaw doesn't lose his license.

Petranek says the cameras deprive people of their right to confront their accuser — and the month-long delay between the infraction and the arrival of the ticket by mail makes people more furious than compliant.

"If you're an unsafe driver, I really do want you off the road," she says. "But this isn't about safety. It's about revenue for the cities and the entrepreneurs" that make the cameras.

Cimperman agrees. "I know some people think they are great, but I think they might even be counterproductive," he says of the laws. "Let's be honest. When Mayor [Jane] Campbell did this, it was a money grab. I probably get three e-mails a week from people who say, 'Hi, I'm from Akron. Here's the PDF of my receipts from the last time I came to Cleveland. But I'm not coming back to spend money anymore because I got hit by a red-light camera.'"

Toledo could have used Petranek's help last year. Residents there united to propose a ban on traffic cameras and had no difficulty amassing the required signatures. The effort failed, however, when organizers learned too late that local rules require each petition to be notarized — a detail Petranek surely would have caught.

Residents of East Cleveland had a similar experience. The city has had mobile speed-enforcement cameras since 2008, and already two citizen initiatives have tried and failed to put the issue before the popular vote. The problem, Petranek says, was that East Cleveland's charter has an unusual rule — a 120-day window during which signatures must be collected. If all of them aren't collected during that time frame, the effort is thrown out.

In November, a new outcry arose when East Cleveland officials revealed that additional cameras would be installed. The reason? To pay off the city's debt to American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona company that has the city's contract to operate cameras there.

"We are making a stand with all the people, with no racial or political or philosophical difference," says local activist Art McCoy, who sought guidance this time from Petranek before mounting another campaign. "We are all on the same page: to eliminate these cameras."

Petranek finds the East Cleveland predicament especially heinous. The city's agreement with American Traffic Solutions stipulates that the company gets a percentage of the money raised through tickets issued by the cameras. Additional cameras are on the way because East Cleveland failed to make payments for ATS's share of the money raised from the existing cameras. In essence, the city is throwing more money at a costly investment.

If Petranek has her way, Cleveland, East Cleveland, South Euclid, and Parma (where she says a few citizens have contacted her but haven't yet organized a committee) will join Garfield Heights in making the cameras a thing of the past. She hopes that will send a message to any other communities considering the idea.

"We're trying to say this is not the way to collect revenue because it is not about safety," Petranek says. "It makes me angry. They talk about safety, safety, safety, safety. But it's really revenue, revenue, revenue, revenue."

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