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posted: 3/1/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Red-light scandal a reminder on all public contracts

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

When a red-light camera scandal in Chicago came to light recently, it might have been easy from our suburban perch just to chalk it up as another gust of corruption blowing through the city.

But corruption is no light matter, and the suburbs are not immune to it. In governments large and small, strict transparency policies and a constant watch for improprieties are needed to ensure business deals are clean.

In Chicago, a transportation official who is now retired is accused of accepting expensive vacations and gifts such as Super Bowl tickets from Redflex, the city's red-light camera vendor. Chicago has announced it will not renew its contract with Redflex in July, and Redflex officials have launched an internal investigation and fired the top executive they say made the deals.

Eyes are now turning to Redflex's other clients, including several in the suburbs that will have to decide whether the company takes enough corrective action for them to feel comfortable about renewing contracts. Will it be necessary scrap an entire business relationship over what appears to be the misdeeds of a single employee? If the performance and the price are satisfactory, there may be no need to change.

Indeed, some have been pleased with Redflex's service, including Aurora and Gurnee, as reported by the Daily Herald's Marni Pyke last week. But Aurora and another Redflex client, Carol Stream, are wary and say the recent events will factor into discussions about future business. "When the contract comes up for renewal, one thing we will have to consider is the character of the organization," Aurora police Chief Greg Thomas said.

Regardless of which company towns use for traffic cameras -- or any contracted service, for that matter -- the responsibility of elected officials to ensure these deals are without blemish cannot be understated. Those working on contract negotiations, whether they are elected officials or paid staff, should not accept gifts of any kind.

They could consider what Gurnee does. Its contract negotiations with Redflex are handled by an independent committee rather than a single person, helping to maintain the proper checks needed for each stage.

When making decisions about red-light cameras, towns have had to tread carefully. Because of the public's general contempt for them, any missteps become news and reopen debates.

We are less than enthusiastic about these programs ourselves and have stated so in the past. If statistics show that cameras increase safety at a particular intersection, fine. If they serve only to boost revenue, one $100 ticket at a time, when drivers roll over a white line before safely turning right on red, we think that's a problem.

But the recent Chicago case has nothing to do with the virtues or evils of red-light cameras. It's about caution, scrutiny and openness. The allegations of wrongdoing are a reminder of what can happen when those are neglected. Beyond that, it really shouldn't take a scandal for officials to critically examine the potential for perks to be passed from contractors to employees who are paid by tax dollars. Such precautions should be a given.

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