Baltimore-bashing is nothing new in Annapolis, whether from representatives of rural counties or the Washington suburbs who believe the city gets more than its fair share of state resources. But when it comes to the city’s well-publicized speed camera problems, some of the sharpest criticism has been meted out by Baltimore’s own House of Delegates contingent.
“We all supported the program, and we still do,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, whose district includes East and Northeast Baltimore. “The problem is there is no public confidence, and Baltimore City is a poster child of how a speed camera program went bad.”
Glenn hurled that barb Monday from her seat on the House transportation subcommittee, which drafted a series of reforms after a Baltimore Sun investigation documented an array of problems with the city’s lucrative speed camera program. The House gave preliminary approval to the bill Thursday; final passage Friday would send it to the Senate.
Glenn and others in the city delegation strengthened the legislation by insisting on a way to shorten “bounty” contracts that pay vendors a cut of each citation. The bill would permit governments to end such arrangements after a year, even if a contract has years to run. The clause was aimed at Baltimore, which recently signed a three-year deal to pay Brekford Corp. $11.20 of each $40 fine payment.
(A House floor amendment adopted Thursday night toughened the bounty provision further by requiring local governments to stop using the bounty system by Oct. 1, 2014 without any contractual penalty.)
The city contingent unsuccessfully pushed for other elements, including a $250 penalty payable to any motorist whose ticket was deemed erroneous by a judge. The Sun found that seven city cameras issued tickets with false speed readings and that city judges routinely throw out tickets on appeal.
City officials point out they’ve hired a new vendor, replaced all of the cameras and overhauled the review process. They also argue the bounty system is better for taxpayers than if the government paid a flat monthly fee per camera regardless of how many citations were issued. That’s because a drop in ticket volume might force the city to dip into taxpayer funds to pay the set fee, they say.
Del. Curt Anderson, who chairs the delegation, wasn’t swayed. “We’re not really concerned with a vendor getting money or the city getting money — we’re concerned with citizens we represent getting pinched for sometimes no good reason,” he said.
Baltimore delegates weren’t the city’s only critics. Del. H. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican on the subcommittee, said: “I never quite understood what caused that debacle with their tickets. Do we know what caused that mess? Why would a stopped vehicle get a speed camera ticket?”
And Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, said the city’s problems have cast a cloud over speed camera programs statewide. “Overall throughout the state, in large part because of what happened in Baltimore, there is inherent distrust,” he said. “We’re here today to try to find a way to bring faith back into the system.”
The subcommittee’s chairman, Del. James E. Malone Jr., said he began work on the bill before the General Assembly session began in January. The Baltimore County Democrat said he sought input from, among others, local governments, law enforcement agencies and vendors.
He said he believes the legislation — which would increase oversight of speed camera programs in Maryland, tighten rules on camera placement and more clearly bar bounty-style contracts — would help “put confidence back” into a system meant to improve safety around schools.
He made it clear he’ll be watching for continuing signs of problems, whether in the city or elsewhere. “I support the system,” he said, “but if everybody is not adhering to the intent of the law, I’ll be the first one to put in legislation next year to do away with the system. I think everybody has heard that.”