A task force studying Baltimore's troubled speed camera program will urge the city to increase oversight, change the way camera sites are selected and create a website containing maps and other information of interest to the public, according to draft recommendations released Wednesday.
A final report is expected to be presented in the next two weeks to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who formed the task force last summer.
"It's going to help us make a better program," acting Transportation Director Frank Murphy said. "We all want this to be a very successful program. We want it to be accurate and effective. We think these things will help us do that."
Several task force members visited the Anne Arundel County headquarters of Brekford Corp., the city's new vendor. Members of the news media were barred from entering by a company official who said it is a "secure facility."
One attendee said Brekford officials told the group about 15 new cameras out of 78 are up and running. City officials said earlier in the day that the company would not meet a deadline to have all of the new cameras in place by the end of this month.
The task force recommended that the city:
•Provide more police for citation review: "Officers should not feel rushed to review citations."
•Require the vendor to issue monthly reports to the city.
•Require camera calibration by a third party.
•Evaluate school zone speed limits for "appropriateness."
•Initiate town hall-style meetings for issues of public concern.
•"Restrain media access" to future task forces to enable "frank, productive conversations."
A Baltimore Sun investigation last year documented erroneous speed readings from seven city radar cameras, including a speeding citation issued to a car that was stopped at a red light. In addition, The Sun found, city judges routinely throw out tickets for a range of deficiencies.
The city's system of more than 150 speed and red light cameras was shut down amid a bumpy transition to the new vendor, Brekford, after Jan. 1. The city is replacing all 78 of its radar-equipped cameras and overhauling a review process in which one police officer sometimes reviewed several tickets per minute.
Task force member Ragina Averella, manager of public and government relations at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she had not yet reviewed all of the recommendations but the changes could help restore integrity to the city's program. Problems documented by The Sun and other news media have "really placed a black eye on the integrity of the automated enforcement system," she said.
Missing from the draft report was AAA's recommendation to end the so-called "bounty system" in which the city pays its contractor $11.20 of each $40 fine paid. Averella wants that in the final report, even as the General Assembly considers legislation to more explicitly bar the practice. AAA and some lawmakers believe the approach currently is illegal under state law.
Averella expressed concern that the task force did not examine the city's red light cameras, part of the mayor's charge. She also said she would seek to remove the call to "restrain media access" to future task forces. A city spokeswoman did not identify who suggested it but said it was not a member of the Rawlings-Blake administration or city government.
Declining to be more specific, Murphy said the city has issued "several thousand" speed camera tickets since the switch to Brekford. "We don't want to get into numbers now because we don't want to make it easy for anybody to speed past the cameras. People should assume they're working, unless they feel lucky."
While Brekford began replacing the city's speed cameras weeks ago, it will not finish the work until next month, missing a deadline of late March. Murphy chalked up the delay to the city's desire to "get things right."
He noted that some recommendations — such as improved police review — are in place. Others were "things I never would have thought of," including a new website featuring maps showing cameras and associated schools; "studies and/or justifications" for speed limits in school zones; calibration certificates; individual citation photos; and information on how to lodge complaints.
The task force also recommended that the city avoid putting speed cameras "in close proximity" to intersections with traffic lights, a common practice in Baltimore since 2009.
After the closed-door session at Brekford, Averella said it was "unfortunate" that news media were barred, adding that she was impressed by measures Brekford says it is taking to ensure accuracy.
Last month, the city said it would hire a California company to oversee an overhaul of its speed and red light camera system — and audit tickets to ensure accuracy. The Board of Estimates approved a six-month, $278,000 contract with URS Corp., an engineering and management firm.
The company will study the city's camera locations; review an audit by the city's former vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions; and conduct a "sample audit" of tickets that Brekford processed before sending them to the Police Department for a final review.
Speed camera fines brought the city $19.2 million last fiscal year and more than $48 million since the program began in 2009.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun