Members of Baltimore's legislative delegation in Annapolis chastised city transportation officials Friday for problems with the city's lucrative network of speed cameras.
Del. Brian McHale called it "unjust" that the city won't try to identify, and refund, every erroneous ticket issued. Del. Curt Anderson said he thought existing state law barred the city from paying its contractor a share of each $40 fine, a view shared by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
And a skeptical Del. Nathaniel Oaks asked city officials what they'll do after finding that a motorist paid a ticket that shouldn't have been issued. "Are you going to send that money back?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Barbara Zektick, acting deputy transportation director.
"I don't believe it," Oaks said.
As proof, Frank Murphy, acting transportation director, told Oaks the city already has refunded more than 200 tickets issued by five cameras shown to have a 5 percent error rate. Zektick said a continuing audit would analyze a sampling of tickets from all 83 of the city's cameras, though she conceded that would not spot every error among the more than 1.6 million tickets issued since 2009.
Baltimore transportation officials briefed the delegates as the General Assembly prepares to take up several proposals aimed at reforming automated enforcement across Maryland.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, has filed a bill containing several proposals. It would require pavement markings to help verify a camera's radar readings and clarify that the government cannot pay contractors a per-ticket "bounty," among other things.
Cameras would have to be calibrated daily under a bill sponsored by Del. John Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. Current law requires annual calibration. Del. Michael Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican, wants to repeal the entire 2009 law allowing speed cameras.
Other measures are expected, including one from Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, that would impose a $1,000 fine on contractors for processing a bogus ticket.
Murphy and Zektick used Friday's meeting with the city's all-Democratic delegation to make the case that speed cameras, which ticket vehicles at least 12 mph over the limit, have reduced speeding near schools and contributed to a decline in fatal accidents.
They played down concerns about errors by noting that the city's former contractor, Xerox State and Local Services, found that most cameras had a 99.5 percent accuracy rate. The Baltimore Sun has documented erroneous speed readings from seven city cameras, including one that ticketed a stopped car.
The two officials elaborated on changes the city is making to prevent errors with its new contractor, Brekford Corp. of Hanover. The city is replacing all 83 speed cameras, and Zektick clarified that the cost to the city will be about $25,000 apiece, or $2.1 million, with Brekford absorbing roughly half of the $50,000-plus cost per camera.
Because the new devices will track vehicles for a longer distance, the city believes they will be less likely to yield incorrect speed readings or target the wrong one.
All of the new speed cameras should be in place by late March, Murphy said, and all 81 red light cameras should be functioning again by then as well. Since Jan. 1 the city's cameras have effectively been shut down. Officials acknowledge that the city is taking a revenue hit; speed cameras had been producing nearly $90,000 per day in fines.
Murphy also detailed plans by the Police Department to double the number of officers available to review citations. The city hopes to amend its contract with Brekford to include penalties for mistakes the company's review fails to catch.
The city will pay Brekford $11.20 of each $40 fine collected. Current state law bars by-the-ticket payment if a contractor operates a speed camera program, and key lawmakers say the intent was to remove any financial incentive for a contractor to issue questionable citations.
But the city and several counties contend that they are the operators of their programs and that the provision does not apply. Zektick said the method is appealing because the city pays the vendor solely from collected fines, thereby insulating taxpayers.
McHale, who represents South Baltimore, wants the city to check all tickets, given what officials know about citation errors and flaws in the review process, even for cameras that Xerox said were 99.5 percent accurate.
"If I'm one of those folks in the half of a percent, I want to know if those are being reviewed," he said.
Murphy said motorists can appeal to District Court. Zektick suggested a method used by The Sun to fact-check tickets using the two time-stamped photos that appear on citations.
"You can do your own sort of reasonableness test," she said. "You can look at how far the car went between the two pictures."
McHale wasn't satisfied.
"I just think that's unjust," he said.