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City Council Bypasses State Senate to Get Speed Cameras Turned Back On

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson hugs a safe streets advocate on Tuesday during an emergency Transportation Committee hearing on speed cameras.
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City Council Speaker Corey Johnson hugs a safe streets advocate on Tuesday during an emergency Transportation Committee hearing on speed cameras. John McCarten

In an emergency session Wednesday, the New York City Council passed a school speed camera bill, which not only reactivates the existing 140 cameras near schools, but allows the city to double the number of cameras and extend the hours in which they’re allowed to operate.

The bill, which passed 41-3, relies on a unique partnership between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to function.

On Monday, Cuomo declared a State of Emergency, on grounds that not having cameras up and running would be a threat to public safety. The governor’s order allows the city’s Department of Transportation to access DMV records and issue tickets, something the previous state bill, which was signed in 2014 and expired in July, made possible.

While the governor normally declares a state of emergency when there's a natural disaster, a hurricane, flooding, or a snow storm, he’s been taking an expansive view of the term “emergency” of late. Last year he said the MTA was in a state of emergency, which gave the agency the ability to bypass the usual process for getting contracts for projects. This has been renewed in perpetuity and some MTA board members are questioning when that will end.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio agreed to waive the normal “aging” period for city bills from eight days to five, so the cameras could be functioning by September 5th, when school begins.

"We personally spent a lot of time figuring this out," Cuomo said about working with de Blasio.

Not all council members were on board with the bill. Staten Island Councilmen Joe Borelli and Steven Mateo voted against the bill. As did Councilman Kalman Yeger, who represents the driver-heavy neighborhoods of Midwood and Borough Park.

“I don’t vote for measures I don’t believe are within our legal authority to do. This is such a measure,” Yeger told the council. “96 hours ago and for the last 15 years prior thereto it was never thought this body had the right to do this.”

State Senator Marty Golden, who tried pushing his own bill last session which would’ve phased out the speed cameras all together over six months in favor of more stop signs and traffic lights, also questioned the legality of the council’s move.

“The Executive Order allowing the City Council to circumvent the Legislature is likely in violation of State Law,” Golden wrote in a statement. “There will be a ticket issued, and someone will sue saying it is illegal. The State will lose, there will be confusion, and that will cause distraction to the fact our children will still not have the protection of speed cameras.”

Attorney and safe streets advocate Steve Vaccaro, who helped the City Council draft its bill, disagrees.

The State Senate has argued all summer that if the Assembly had simply passed a bill to renew the program, rather than expand it, it would’ve passed that bill.

“Democrats can be self-congratulatory, but the public should know that their Governor, Mayor, Assembly Speaker and City Council Speaker failed to do as much as pick up the phone to call the Senate Majority to keep the cameras on,” Candice Giove, a spokesperson for the State Senate Republicans wrote to Gothamist/WNYC.

She argued that instead of repeatedly saying “the Senate will have blood on their hands” leaders should have done more to reach out to the Senate.

Senator Simcha Felder, who was seen as holding up a vote on the Assembly’s bill, has repeatedly refused to comment all summer on the speed camera bill. "I'd be open to seeing whether you like chocolate cake, for delicious chocolate rugelach," he told WNYC this summer when pressed on the issue.

Governor Cuomo never officially called an emergency session to vote on the Assembly’s bill—later saying it'd just be a” clown show” and that the Senate would gavel in and gavel out without voting. So he bypassed the entire process altogether.

Now he must renew his emergency order every 30 days for the whole scheme to work.
Cuomo, Johnson, and de Blasio also agree on one thing; the Senate should just pass the Assembly’s bill.

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