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City keeping red-light firm so it can cut ties later

Red Light cameras corner 63rd   Western. Wednesday April 18 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Red Light cameras at the corner of 63rd & Western. Wednesday, April 18, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:39AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel reluctantly agreed Friday to extend for a second time Chicago’s contract with a red-light camera vendor at the center of a bribery scandal to make certain the city can sever the relationship for good.

Three months ago, Emanuel ordered an independent audit of Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems — and barred the company from competing for the new contract — amid allegations that Redflex showered more free trips than first believed on a former city official who oversaw the contract.

It happened after the company’s internal investigation concluded that Redflex paid to send former city transportation official John Bills to the Super Bowl and other sporting events and allegedly concealed those favors from the city.

Although Redflex was barred from competing for the new contract, Emanuel extended the disgraced company’s contract for six months to give the city time to select a new vendor.

Now, the contract is being extended for a second time and competing vendors are being explicitly told that their request to continue subcontracting with Redflex to ease the transition has been denied.

How long the extension lasts will depend on how quickly the new vendor can make the transition — and speed will be a factor in determining the winning bidder, according to mayoral spokesperson Bill McCaffrey.

The decision to prolong a relationship that has been a huge embarrassment to the city is somewhat surprising.

But McCaffrey argued that City Hall had no choice. In order to continue the red-light program — and the millions it has generated while making Chicago streets more safe — Redflex must be allowed to continue.

“We’re not extending the relationship with them. We’re making sure the relationship comes to an end,” McCaffrey said.

“The red-light program aims to increase safety and reduce the number of dangerous angle crashes. We are not gonna interrupt the program while selecting a new vendor. During the transition period, their contract will be extended to ensure operational continuity.”

McCaffrey said it “goes without saying” that the city would like to wash its hands of Reflex as quickly as possible. The revised deadline for submitting bids — after Friday’s addendum barring vendors from using Redflex — is May 10.

“Without issuing an addendum, a winning bidder could have used them as a subcontractor,” McCaffrey said.

“All aspects of the program need to be transitioned to a new vendor, including hardware, software and processing functions. ... The length of the transitional contract will be determined, in part, by the transition plan that is defined in the winning bidder’s proposal and the expediency and quality of the transition plan will be a factor used in the evaluation.”

Red-lightcameras were gradually installed at accident-prone Chicago intersections beginning in 2003. The cameras pumped out a high of 791,111 tickets in 2009, before dropping in recent years to 763,419 in 2010 and 662,046 in 2011.

The mayor’s decision to oust Redflex marked the end of a lucrative relationship that has generated $100 million in revenues for the company and $300 million in fines for the city. It also benefited several mayoral allies.

Redflex’s Illinois lobbying team includes Michael J. Kasper, a lawyer who defended Emanuel in efforts to knock him off the mayoral ballot. The firm’s city lobbyists include former Ald. Mark Fary (12th), husband of Rosemarie S. Andolino, Emanuel’s aviation commissioner.

Another Emanuel ally, public affairs consultant Greg Goldner, also has worked for Redflex .

When red-light cameras were first installed, City Hall billed it as a safety measure, just as Emanuel is now touting speed cameras.

But with $100 fines for every motorist who blows through a red lights, Chicago’s 384 red-light cameras at 190 intersections quickly became a cash cow for the revenue-strapped city.

Former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman was hired by Reflex to investigate the company’s relationship with Bills as well as Redflex decision to pay Bills’ associate more than $500,000 in commissions.

Reflex was barred from competing for yet another cash-rich contract — to install speed cameras around schools and parks — after the Chicago Tribune first disclosed the company’s relationship with Bills.

The Tribune initially reported that Redflex had given a lucrative contract to Bills’ friend and that the company had picked up the tab for Bills’ stay at a luxury hotel during the former city official’s annual trip to White Sox spring training.

The stories prompted Inspector General Joe Ferguson to open an investigation.

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