Arlington mom fights ticket, forces Pantego to change sign

Posted Thursday, Sep. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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When Kathleen Stephens took a left turn in front of Bailey Junior High School on a cool morning in May, she was surprised to see a Pantego police officer in her rearview mirror.

Stephens had been dropping off her son, now 13, at the school on South Bowen Road the same way for two years. This time, she received a ticket.

Although many motorists would have reluctantly paid the fine, fighting the ticket became a crusade for Stephens, 44, coordinator of student affairs for the College of Science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

She did 50 hours of research, worked with an attorney and obtained a subpoena for an Arlington city traffic engineer.

Now, Pantego has backed down, and city officials on Thursday changed the wording on a “Stop here on red” sign near the Pantego Fire Department, which is across the street from the school. They also planned to dismiss Stephens’ ticket.

Craig Magnuson, an attorney who serves as the Pantego city prosecutor, said he recommended that the sign be changed to “Do not block fire station driveway” after Stephens presented information that the sign was out of code.

“She is definitely a crusader,” said Christopher DeLisio, the Fort Worth attorney representing Stephens. “She needs to be commended for having the courage and gumption to say, ‘I’m not going to take it, and no one else has to take it, either.’”

Crossing the line

On the east side of the street is the junior high school, with a circular drive where parents drop off and pick up their children. On the west side are the Fire Department and City Hall.

There is a stoplight just past the circular drive, at Winewood Lane.

The sign is designed to prevent cars from backing up at the Winewood light and blocking the fire station. The entrance to the Bailey Junior High drive is between the stoplight and the sign.

“The intersection is confusing, and if you’re making a left-hand turn toward the circular drive, you’re not looking at that light,” said Stephens, who hadn’t faced an officer from the driver’s seat since getting a ticket in 1987.

Stephens said she was cited for “disregard traffic control device-Fire Station,” a Class C misdemeanor. The officer noted that she had passed the “Stop here on red” sign on her way to Bailey.

Instead of paying the ticket, Stephens contacted Paul Iwuchukwu, an Arlington city traffic engineer. Arlington maintains traffic signals throughout Pantego under an interlocal agreement.

Iwuchukwu told Stephens that Pantego’s sign was out of code according to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the standard published by the Federal Highway Administration.

Under a section titled “Longitudinal Positioning of Signal Faces,” the rule says the main traffic signal should be no more than 180 feet from the stop line unless an additional traffic signal is provided.

Stephens said Iwuchukwu found the sign to be 225 feet from the traffic signal. Because Iwuchukwu was subpoenaed for a Sept. 19 jury trial, he declined to talk to the Star-Telegram.

The trial won’t happen, though, because Magnuson said he would dismiss the case.

“I could still proceed with the case, but I don’t like the language on the sign and what the sign indications are,” Magnuson said. “I’m going to move to dismiss, and then I’m going to strengthen my case for the future.”

Stephens had already hired DeLisio to represent her in the meeting with Magnuson.

“It’s kind of a municipality pissing match,” DeLisio said of the agreement between Arlington and Pantego. “They [Pantego] got caught. There are all sorts of good excuses when you’ve been caught. What they should have done is put in a supplementary light so the sign would have been legal from the get-go. Now they are trying to do a $100 sign change instead of a $1,000 light change.”

According to Pantego’s records, the department has issued nine citations and four written warnings over the “Stop here on red” sign since 2003, Assistant Police Chief Barry Reeves said.

DeLisio said the bottom line is, whether one ticket, nine tickets or 9,000 tickets were issued, drivers should receive refunds.

Magnuson said that isn’t so.

Stephens’ case will be dismissed because of the facts surrounding it, he said, but he cannot speak to why other people were ticketed.

“We wouldn’t go back and refund money back on a plea currently made. There may have been different charges — circumstances could be different,” Magnuson said. “There are facts in this case that made me go, ‘Hmm, is this the best case to go forward with?’”

Stephens said she is concerned that drivers will inevitably block the fire station exit because the sign remains hard to see and because the road gets busy at the beginning and end of the school day.

She doesn’t believe that rewording the sign will solve the problem, and she accused Pantego of trying to save money rather than installing a new sign.

“It’s a safety issue. Is a sign going to do it? We’d have to look at some other local fire stations and see what they are doing so their fire station is not blocked,” Stephens said. “It doesn’t seem like the safety of the intersection is being improved.”

Thomas Griffith, chief of public safety, said: “The sign, as it now refers to the traffic light, is evidently not the correct distance. The sign is being changed to different wording.”

Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792 Twitter:@MonicaNagyFWST

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