Legislation that one Baltimore lawmaker said would create a "new and improved speed camera program" is headed to the House of Delegates, after a committee overwhelmingly approved a legislative package Wednesday in the waning days of the General Assembly session.
The bill would increase oversight of programs across Maryland, tighten rules on camera placement and more clearly bar government contracts that pay vendors on a per-ticket basis known as the "bounty system."
And while existing contracts would be grandfathered in, a late amendment adopted Wednesday evening would empower governments to convert such agreements to a flat-fee payment system a year after the bill's Oct. 1 effective date. For instance, a government could instead pay a set monthly amount per camera, regardless of the number of tickets issued.
Lawmakers added the clause at the behest of Baltimore's House delegation because the city recently signed a three-year contract that follows the bounty system. That deal pays Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County $11.20 of each $40 fine paid by motorists.
"We didn't want to wait three years," said Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the subcommittee that crafted the bill. Critics say per-ticket payments give vendors a financial incentive to process questionable citations.
If approved by the full House, the legislation would need to win passage in the Senate.
The aim of the package is to "put confidence back into the system," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the transportation subcommittee of the Environmental Matters Committee. The full committee voted 21-3 in favor of the bill.
Malone's group began drafting the legislation late last year, after a Baltimore Sun investigation documented a range of problems with the city's lucrative speed camera network, including erroneous speed readings from several of its 83 cameras.
The legislation stops short of what some experts say is needed for motorists to be able to verify their tickets. That is because it doesn't require detailed time stamps on the two photos each citation must have showing the allegedly speeding vehicle.
The Sun found that citations issued by Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration use time stamps that are not sufficiently precise to do such fact-checking. City tickets, by contrast, list the times of both photos to the thousandth of a second.
The bill would change several aspects of the 2009 law that allowed speed cameras statewide.
It would limit cameras to areas around K-12 schools where children are picked up or dropped off, and on roads where students walk or ride a bicycle to school. Current law permits cameras anywhere within a half-mile of a school. Citations can be issued to drivers clocked at least 11 mph over the limit.
The measure would require local governments to designate an ombudsman to handle questions or complaints. That person could void "erroneous citations" so motorists would not have to contest the ticket in court. Each government that uses speed cameras would also have to hire a program administrator who would have to undergo training.
The bill also more clearly bans the bounty system. It says governments couldn't pay a contractor "on a per-ticket basis" if the company "in any manner" operates the speed camera system "or administers or processes" tickets. Like the city, Baltimore and Howard counties pay their vendor by ticket volume.
Existing law bars per-ticket payments if a contractor "operates" a program, but local governments have gotten around that by arguing that they, not the vendor, are the operator.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said in December that he believed current state law was intended to bar any contracts where payments are based on volume. He called on jurisdictions with such contracts to "change their program."
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