Email exchanges obtained through the Public Information Act offer a glimpse at how the Rawlings-Blake’s administration has responded behind the scenes to The Baltimore Sun’s ongoing coverage of problems with the city’s speed cameras.
And they show some top city officials scrambling to respond to the evolving story and seize control of the message — sometimes in error.
In mid-November, two days before The Sun published its months-long investigation, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s press office was preparing to issue a news release trumpeting its own finding that most ticket recipients live outside the city. According to a statement from the mayor, the city’s figures showed suburban drivers were “not getting the message” that they need to slow down in city school zones.
City Hall gave an advance copy of its findings to WBAL radio, which ran a report Friday evening, Nov. 16. The Sun emailed the city the next morning, asking for details so it could include the analysis in its story scheduled for the next day — a story that documented erroneous speed readings and city judges routinely tossing tickets on appeal.
But Rawlings-Blake’s chief spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, didn’t respond to The Sun. Instead, he forwarded the request to other city officials with a one-word message: “Winning.”
“Haha!” replied Chad Kenney, director of CitiStat, the city office charged with using data to help improve governmental efficiency. He added: “Precision is key.”
At 8:15 a.m. on Sunday, O’Doherty emailed press secretary Ian Brennan and city budget director Andrew Kleine asking for help in learning more about Washington’s speed camera program. “I think I want to put out another release today saying that their program dwarfs ours,” he wrote.
Kleine and O’Doherty exchanged messages over several hours, and others worked into the night, the emails show. The result was a news release issued Monday the 19th under the headline: “Baltimore Traffic Photo Enforcement Program Dwarfed by Washington, D.C. Program.”
It noted that speed camera fines in D.C. have far exceeded those in Baltimore, thanks to Maryland’s lower $40 fine limit. But it wrongly claimed the District had more speed cameras than Baltimore — Baltimore has 83, compared to D.C.’s 46. The release does not appear on City Hall’s website.
On the morning of Nov. 20, Brennan emailed Rawlings-Blake to say Larry Young was discussing speed cameras on his radio show and urging her to call in. He forwarded her “some talking points” — blacked out in the emails provided by the city — and encouraged her to mention the city task force created to explore speed cameras.
“Done,” the mayor emailed Brennan.
“I heard. Sounded good,” he replied.
In late November, The Sun asked motorists to send us their speed camera tickets. We knew we could verify the accuracy of tickets by using a tape measure to gauge how far a vehicle traveled, but first we needed tickets to analyze.
The effort paid off. It led to the discovery of a Mazda minivan clocked going 38 mph while stopped at a red light, by a camera that is among five later turned off because of high error rates. The city is now in the process of replacing all 83 of its speed cameras at a cost of roughly $2.1 million.
City communications officials saw it differently. Brennan emailed O’Doherty a link to our blog post and the message “Pathetic (and desperate) that’s what it is.”
O’Doherty said in a subsequent message to The Sun that his “winning” comment was meant merely to “show WBAL obtained an exclusive.” And the entire email exchange reveals the obvious: The mayor and city officials support the city’s speed camera program and consider much of the criticism unwarranted.
“Are you surprised to learn that governments believe that coverage isn’t balanced sometimes?” he wrote. “If you write a story about how we were not pleased with this previous Sun story months ago, will you then write another story about how we were not pleased with tomorrow’s Sun story?”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun