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Speed camera reform bill passes General Assembly

The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation Thursday that will provide new protections for motorists from erroneous tickets and other speed camera abuses, sending the bill to the governor for his expected signature.

The compromise measure — two years in the making — requires jurisdictions to employ ombudsmen to void erroneous tickets before a trial and bans the so-called bounty system in which contractors are rewarded financially for issuing more tickets, though it does not apply to current contracts.

It also requires jurisdictions to alert motorists to the presence of mobile cameras by posting signs and waiting 15 days before issuing tickets from them.

The proposals to provide new safeguards for motorists came after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun detailed numerous problems in Baltimore's speed camera system, which has since been shut down. Some proposed changes were opposed by local governments, which depend on the tickets for revenue as well as to promote traffic safety.

"I'm a hard-liner on this issue, but we got 85 percent of what we wanted," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is against the cameras and was the lead sponsor of the Senate bill. "At the end of the day, I don't want people to be ripped off."

A supporter of the cameras, Del. James Malone, also a Baltimore County Democrat, said the compromise took into account the views of both sides. "If you love speed cameras, you'll love this bill. If you hate speed cameras, you'll love this bill," said Malone, the House sponsor.

The measure does not include some reform proposals, including requiring time stamps on tickets to help verify accuracy. It does require local governments to publish detailed annual reports and subjects contractors to damages if their error rate exceeds 5 percent.

After a months-long investigation beginning in 2012, The Sun documented erroneous speed readings at seven cameras in Baltimore, including a car stopped at a red light that was accused of speeding. The investigation also showed that several jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Baltimore County, were engaged in contracts in which the vendor was paid per citation.

Amid continued questions, Baltimore City took its entire speed and red-light camera system offline in 2013. The system, once the largest in North America, had brought in $140 million since 1999 to city government.

The legislation, which passed the House of Delegates last month, was approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's office issued a statement saying he intends to sign it. "With public safety being among our top priorities, we expect the Governor to sign the legislation as it ensures the integrity of the speed camera program while also building on our efforts to keep Marylanders safe on our roads," said Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for O'Malley.

Critics of the cameras pointed out flaws in the legislation.

Ron Ely, chairman of the anti-speed-camera Maryland Drivers Alliance, said the bill didn't go far enough.

"This bill is reform in name only," Ely said. "The bill does not provide true external oversight. The so-called 'ombudsman' is modeled after a role in Montgomery County, which is really a program manager. This person's allegiance will be to the program. This will not be an independent advocate for the public in reality."

Del. Warren Miller, a Howard County Republican who voted against the bill, lamented that the legislation does not require audits of the systems. An audit of Baltimore City's system, obtained by The Sun and published in January, revealed much higher error rates than officials had acknowledged. City officials have called it "incomplete" and "inconclusive."

Miller had submitted legislation to require audits of the multimillion-dollar programs on a quarterly basis. His bill died in committee.

"There's something good in there, but there's a lot of bad," Miller said of the legislation.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has said she plans to move forward with a smaller system, applauded the bill's passage.

"The mayor was very supportive of and involved in the push for passage of this reform bill as many of its provisions overlap with task force recommendations she asked for last year," said her spokesman, Kevin Harris. "Baltimore's speed camera program is currently offline, but as we work to re-establish a workable system for the city, we believe that both this bill and the mayor's task force recommendations should guide the process."

Under provisions of state law that will not change, local governments can use the cameras to issue tickets to drivers found to be traveling more than 11 mph over the speed limit in school or work zones.

In Baltimore County, the speed camera vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions, receives $19 of every $40 ticket paid. The legislation allows that arrangement to continue through the current contract but bars such deals in the future. Critics say such a "bounty system" gives companies an incentive to issue more tickets.

"Baltimore County is in compliance with every provision in the legislation that passed the General Assembly, and is pleased that legislators arrived at a reasonable compromise," said Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Brochin said he had to compromise on some measures to get the bill passed. He had wanted the bill to limit cameras to areas within a quarter-mile of a school. The legislation, instead, permits cameras as far as half a mile from a school. He also wanted the ombudsman to be confirmed by the county or city council, adding a level of independence from the administration.

Brochin said he plans to pursue those issues next year, but is happy with how much was accomplished this session.

"If you've clearly been ripped off by the system, you don't have to spend a day in court," he said.

Baltimore City Del. Maggie McIntosh also said she was pleased with the way speed camera opponents and supporters came together over the bill.

"In the end, it was a real public safety and community effort," she said.

Ragina Cooper-Averella, government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic and a member of Rawlings-Blake's speed camera task force, praised Malone and said he worked "tirelessly" on the bill. AAA Mid-Atlantic supports speed cameras but has been critical of their implementation in some jurisdictions, including Baltimore.

"Obviously, passage of this bill is a huge step in the right direction," she said. "It's a huge victory."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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