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Governor, City Council, Mayor Save School Zone Speed Cameras With 'Aggressive Legal Action'

Governor Cuomo announces the speed camera fix with Chief Counsel Alphonso David, NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Amy Cohen, the founder of Families for Safe Streets
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Governor Cuomo announces the speed camera fix with Chief Counsel Alphonso David, NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Amy Cohen, the founder of Families for Safe Streets Kevin Coughlin / State of New York

Following the State Senate's failure to renew New York City's school zone speed camera program, the City Council, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio have delivered a patchwork solution to reactivate them by the time students return to class next week.

At a press conference held with safe streets advocates and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Monday morning, Cuomo told reporters that the strategy requires him to sign an executive order declaring a state of emergency that re-instates the state speed camera law, and directs the state Department of Motor Vehicles to work with the City of New York. The City Council will pass a law that is essentially identical to the state law, and Mayor Bill de Blasio will issue a "message of necessity" that bolsters the governor's claim that a state of emergency exists.

"This is an aggressive legal action, I believe it is legally prudent and legally sustainable, but it is an aggressive legal action," Cuomo said. "But I believe we are also in extraordinary circumstances, and I'm not gonna be a governor who sits by and because the State Senate is playing politics and refusing to come back, we jeopardize human life, especially the lives of children."

The Republican-controlled Senate allowed the cameras' ticketing capacity to lapse in July, refusing to return to Albany and vote on legislation that would have sustained the program. "From the minute the program expired the Council has been looking at the issue to see if there has been anything we can do to get the cameras turned back on before school started," Speaker Johnson told the New York Daily News.

The 140 cameras stationed in school zones allowed the city to ticket law-breaking drivers, and according to a report from the New York City Department of Transportation, cut speeding during school hours by 63 percent. Speeding through school zones has cost multiple students their lives, and the specter of a dormant camera network prompted protest from concerned parents and city council members alike. Because the cameras are the product of state law, the municipal program required the state legislature's renewal. Since they failed to act, the "toothless" cameras (which still collect data on drivers, without the ability to ticket them) have recorded over 132,000 people speeding through school zones.

Cuomo arguably shares some of the blame for allowing the speed cameras to go dark in the first place, having declined to leverage his authority to force the Senate's hand, or to issue an executive order saving the program. At a July 25 press conference, hours before Senate inaction officially hobbled the speed cameras, Cuomo said lawmakers didn't "need a special session" or "a lightning bolt from heaven" to protect the cameras' ticketing power. "There's no need for me to do anything but sign the bill once they pass it," he said, passing the buck as the clock ran out on the cameras.

Asked on Monday why he didn't do something sooner, Governor Cuomo replied, "I always believed the Senate Republicans would come back and pass the bill. I never believed they would be this irrational, this tone deaf, where they would actually jeopardize young lives to this extent. I never believed it, I always believed they would come back."

The executive order is good for 30 days, and the governor said he would continue to sign executive orders extending the program until the Senate passes legislation to make the cameras permanent. Cuomo said he suspected they would, because they will need his cooperation if they want other bills passed.

"If they want to get a bill passed, they're gonna need the Assembly to be cooperative, they're gonna need me to be cooperative," Cuomo said.

The governor also had some rare praise for de Blasio: "He was very engaged and we personally spent a lot of time figuring this out." But he heaped the most praise on Corey Johnson.

"Government has fallen into this malaise where process is enough, and moving the piece of paper from the inbox to the outbox is enough, it's a problem all across this country," Cuomo said. "That's not who this City Council Speaker is, this is a get it done—its about making progress it's about helping people, it's not about taking the bureaucratic step, it's about showing the courage and the ingenuity and creativity to actually get to a result and that's what this was."

The Council is expected to vote for its speed camera law on Wednesday, allowing Mayor de Blasio the requisite five days to sit on the legislation before signing it early next week. The cameras should be up and running at full capacity by the time school resumes on September 5.

UPDATE: After Cuomo's announcement, some Senate Republicans voiced approval for the measure. GOP New York Senate Majority Leader spokesperson Candice Giove told our colleagues at WNYC: "We have said all along that our Majority supports extending this program to keep speed cameras on." Under pressure, some Senators did eventually pay lip service to the idea of speed cameras, but ultimately, Majority Leader John Flanagan never convened the requisite special session to pass a bill. In her statement, Giove said the party might "even consider codifying the Governor's executive order into law. The real question is will the Assembly join us."

The majority-Democratic assembly did in fact pass speed camera legislation on time, and as such, it will come as little surprise that their leadership balked at Giove's suggestion. "They are not serious," spokesperson Michael Whyland said in response.

"This is happening because Senate Republicans have refused to do their jobs," Whyland continued. "They have zero credibility. There is no need for the Assembly to come back as we have already passed legislation that includes speed cameras, other school safety measures across the state, and local extenders. If Senate Republicans were truly serious they would come back and pass this bill."

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