In a blow to Tim Eyman and other red-light camera foes, the state Supreme Court said Thursday that the cameras cannot be banned by local initiatives.

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Local voters can’t ban red-light cameras by initiative, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in a ruling that dampens efforts around the state to banish the cameras.

The court ruled that the Legislature gave “exclusive power” to local city and county councils to decide whether to use the cameras.

“The Legislature’s grant of authority does not extend to the electorate,” Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the five-justice majority. The ruling invalidating a 2010 Mukilteo voters’ initiative — in which 71 percent of voters sought to ban the cameras — isn’t likely to end the debate.

More than two dozen cities in the state have contracted with out-of-state companies to use the cameras, potentially generating millions in revenue from red-light runners.

The cameras snap a photo of every car that goes through an intersection while the light is red. Workers in out-of-state offices review the photos and forward potential lawbreakers’ photos to local law enforcement, which approves the tickets. Then the companies mail $124 tickets to offenders.

Supporters of the cameras say they improve public safety — a position bolstered by a 2011 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that showed cities with cameras had fewer fatal accidents.

Opponents resent giving private companies such a stake in traffic tickets, a role they say should be reserved for law-enforcement officers. They say the machines are meant to generate profits, not boost safety, and they violate privacy and civil rights.

Tim Eyman organized

The ruling brings legal clarity to citizen-led efforts to ban the cameras in at least six cities across the state, including Bellingham, Longview and Monroe, where voters in November passed advisory measures opposing cameras.

The battle against the intersection cameras is organized and cheered by Tim Eyman, who over the past decade has made a career of pushing anti-tax initiative campaigns. Red-light cameras are a new cause for him, and one he believes has widespread appeal beyond party affiliation.

“Because we know we have the voters on our side, we can continue this fight,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before all the cameras are gone from the state of Washington.”

He said Thursday the ruling is “arrogant” but shouldn’t slow anti-camera activism. It does nothing to stop voters from bringing advisory measures, which attempt to affect local leaders with political pressure.

A statewide measure to change the 2005 law allowing cameras “is always an option,” said Eyman, a Mukilteo resident.

After a lawsuit by a citizens group threw the Mukilteo initiative into legal limbo, the City Council there banned the cameras anyway.

More recent ballot measures have seen similar success. In November, 68 percent of Monroe voters passed an advisory measure, and measures passed in Bellingham and Longview as well.

Groups in Wenatchee and Redmond have also gathered signatures.

Red-light-camera use is on the rise everywhere.

Seattle has cameras at more than 20 intersections, generating nearly $5 million in 2010. Two Arizona-based companies that contract with cities to install the cameras and review the photos have contracts in about 25 cities in Washington.

There are more than 5,500 cameras in use across the country, according to Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale-Ariz.-based red-light-camera company.

Traffic safety

Madsen wrote in her ruling — signed by Justices Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, Debra Stephens and Charles Wiggins — that the Legislature “expressly granted authority to the governing body of the city of Mukilteo to enact ordinances on the use of automated traffic-safety cameras,” so “the subject matter of Proposition 1 is not within the initiative power.”

State laws that involve regulations, like zoning, and “police power” are usually exempt from initiatives, said Hugh Spitzer, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Law.

“In this case, the decision about how best to manage traffic safety apparently was a decision that the Legislature had expressly vested in the governing body of cities,” he said.

That principle is well-established, Spitzer said, and wasn’t what caused the divided ruling. The four dissenting justices didn’t think the court should ever have heard the case since, Justice James Johnson wrote, “there is no longer an actual, present and existing dispute” because traffic cameras are outlawed in Mukilteo.

“This is a fairly technical case,” said Spitzer. “Red-light cameras were not really the issue.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.