In a mayoral race that so far lacks a big-name opponent, any real controversies and only hints of news coverage, Democratic challenger India Walton is now emphasizing a major division with the incumbent.
Walton, a community activist challenging Mayor Byron W. Brown in the June Democratic primary, points to new Council action calling for the removal of the controversial school zone cameras in 15 mph speed limit zones near Buffalo schools. Walton says this week's Council measure, approved 6-3, reflects vast popular rejection of the program, even though the same body originally provided unanimous approval for the program implemented in February 2020.
"Hats off to the six members of the Common Council brave enough to go toe to toe with the mayor," Walton said Thursday, accusing Brown of wearing "blinders" in the face of widespread disapproval. "My advice to the current mayor is to be accountable and realize he made a mistake.
"He should approve it and sign it," she added, "even though it's a little bit too little and too late."
The School Zone Safety Program sets a 15 mph speed limit around 20 public, private and charter schools. Drivers captured on camera traveling at least 26 mph receive a citation mailed to the car's registered owner. The city gets $36 of each $50 citation. Sensys Gatso, the camera company that issues the citations, receives $14. The speed zones have spawned more than 100,000 violations.
The program has drawn criticism about poor implementation and execution. Others say the cameras target the city's most impoverished residents in high-poverty, minority neighborhoods.
But the camera company and the Brown administration say the program is working and saving lives. About half of the citations were issued to people who live outside the city, and the cameras have increased compliance by Buffalo drivers to 82% since February 2020.
On Tuesday, six Council members passed, by what could prove a veto-proof tally, a resolution that Brown contends only asks for his approval for immediate passage. He says Walton has misinterpreted the action as eliminating the camera program, while he sees it as asking only for immediate passage.
"For something some members of the Council wanted dealt with immediately, the proper process was not followed, and I haven't received it," he said. "I'm not going to respond to someone who has a clear misunderstanding of the government process."
Nevertheless, the mayor aggressively weighed in with arguments and statistics he insists support a program making streets safe against speeding drivers. Data shows drivers are slowing down, he said, fewer citations have been issued for speeding in school zones, and police officers can be stationed where they are more needed.
And when asked about widespread complaints and the resulting avalanche of $50 fines, Brown said the city implemented the idea in the first place because of escalating reports of speeding near schools.
"People wanted something done," he said, noting that some of the Council members seeking ultimate repeal voted for the original authorization.
"Now we see significant compliance," he said. "It's happening. We're making our children and other members of the community safer. And this program, from the very beginning, has been about safety."
But following the latest Council action, Walton has catapulted the issue squarely into the mayoral contest, despite her significant disadvantage in campaign resources. She calls the program a "money grab" that could accomplish the same results with new signage, speed bumps and other measures. She also said the program is unfairly filling city coffers.
"The mayor is on record for not raising taxes, but whether it's a fine or a fee it's still a tax," she said. "And data shows it disproportionately affects those already struggling with the pandemic.
"I hope he goes ahead supports it," she added of the new Council measure, "and we can be done with this."