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Council to investigate administration over secret speed camera audit

The City Council decided Monday to launch an investigation into the secret audit of Baltimore's speed camera system that found error rates much higher than officials have claimed publicly.

"People in the city of Baltimore are losing faith in us as elected officials," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "We have to make sure that we restore their faith. Right now, people are very frustrated."

The Baltimore Sun reported last week the findings of a never-released audit that showed the city's speed cameras likely charged motorists for thousands more erroneous tickets than previously disclosed. Consultant URS Corp. evaluated the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 and found an error rate of more than 10 percent — 40 times higher than city officials have claimed.

Young said the committee in charge of investigating the Rawlings-Blake administration's handling of the audit would have the power to subpoena documents and compel officials to testify under oath. "I'm as committed as anybody on this council is to getting to the bottom of it," Young said.

Administration officials got the audit's findings last April but never disclosed its results, refusing calls by members of the City Council to release the document. The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million. Some council members said the findings should have led to immediate refunds.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Monday that the administration has a strong record of taking speed camera errors seriously.

He pointed out that within a week of receiving the audit, the administration shut down the entire speed camera program last April, by then being run by a different company. He stressed that officials had previously voided or refunded tickets found to be erroneous, though he said no refunds were issued as a result of the URS audit.

Such actions "are not the steps you take when you are seeking to operate in secrecy," Harris said. "Instead, these are the actions you take when you are being open and honest with the public by admitting an error and moving quickly to address it."

The council investigation will be conducted by the judiciary committee, chaired by Councilman James Kraft, the council's only lawyer. It considered a resolution to put the matter in the hands of the taxation committee — chaired by outspoken Councilman Carl Stokes — and voted 8-7 to do so. But sending the matter to that panel required 12 votes to suspend council rules, so the probe will remain with Kraft's committee.

Council members said they would seek to determine who in the Rawlings-Blake administration knew about the audit's findings and when they knew it. Members said they would demand all documents prepared by URS into the city's speed and red light camera program.

"We will hear this matter expeditiously," Kraft said. "It is imperative that we get all those documents." He did not say when the probe would begin.

Council members have expressed frustration that they have been able to read the document as posted by The Sun, while the administraiton continues to refuse to release it to them.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the "overwhelming" outcry from the public — and the secrecy surrounding the audit — make an investigation into the administration's actions urgent. "We need to do this now," she said.

Stokes pointed out that even members of the mayor's speed camera task force were not made aware that the audit existed.

"Thousands of people — and I am not making this up — are questioning what has happened, including the members of the task force that was put together to hear this matter," he said.

Young expressed frustration that he and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who sit on the board that approves speed camera contracts, were not told of the audit's conclusions.

"Sitting on the Board of Estimates, I was totally embarrassed and I was disappointed that they would do an audit and not share it with me and the comptroller," he said. "I don't know about you all but I am getting calls to my office asking what am I going to do to make sure people get refunded their money."

For the audit, URS looked at a sample of nearly 1,000 tickets from a random day in 2012 at 37 of the city's 83 speed cameras. The firm said it could vouch for the accuracy of about only 64 percent of tickets. More than 10 percent were found to be in error. Another 26 percent were described as questionable.

While 13 cameras had double-digit error rates, 12 had no errors, the audit found. In all, errors in tickets were found at 25 of the cameras analyzed.

Xerox was the city's speed camera vendor from the fall of 2009 through 2012. In response to a request from The Sun, Harris provided data showing that over the years, the city refunded 6,253 speed camera tickets issued by Xerox. The documents indicate that 3,091 tickets were refunded due to erroneous tickets, while others were for different reasons, such as duplicate payments.

Harris said no refunds were made due to the audit because officials regard it as "inconclusive." "We fundamentally don't agree that the URS audit is a complete, comprehensive audit," Harris said. "It's irresponsible in our opinion to issue refunds because it's inconclusive."

Instead, Harris said, the administration better trusted a Xerox review of about 7,000 of its tickets. The city has said that study — also never released — was conducted in December 2012, after the city had decided to use a different vendor amid a Baltimore Sun investigation of errors in the program. Xerox said at the time that it had detected a 5.2 percent error rate at five cameras, and the city issued about 350 refunds.

The URS audit identified several cameras with very high error rates. A camera in the 1000 block of Caton Ave. had a 35 percent error rate, the audit found. A device at the 6500 block of Eastern Ave. had a 45 percent error rate. And a speed camera in the 5400 block of Loch Raven Blvd. had a 58 percent error rate.

The audit was done as part of $278,000 of work URS conducted for the city last year. Among other work, the firm also monitored testing aimed at fixing and restarting the camera system under a second speed camera company, Brekford Corp.

Its findings — which the city made public in response to a public records request from The Sun — showed persistent problems in the Brekford system, including preventable errors.

City Solicitor George Nilson has said releasing the URS audit of Xerox would violate a settlement agreement with that company.

This month, the city expanded its contract with URS. The Board of Estimates agreed to pay $237,000 for "additional independent monitoring services" of the city's speed and red-light cameras. The company will monitor "engineering services, documents and preparing of standard operating procedures and business rules," according to board records.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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