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City suspends speed camera tickets amid new mistakes

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Baltimore officials announced Tuesday that they have suspended the city's troubled speed camera program amid fresh reports of erroneous tickets, this time involving a new multimillion-dollar camera network.

The Baltimore Sun found that a recently installed camera on The Alameda has wrongly issued tickets, citing motorists for exceeding a 25 mph limit when the posted limit is 30 mph.

The development is a setback for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of achieving a "zero error" program, announced after The Sun documented widespread problems with the city's automated enforcement system last year.

City officials said Tuesday, after receiving inquiries from The Sun, that the city was temporarily halting all speed and red-light camera tickets "due to complications that arose during the transition to our new vendor." They said they made the decision Monday.

The driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic applauded the move.

"In light of these recent issues, we believe that suspending the city's automated enforcement program is the appropriate action for them to take," said Ragina Averella, the group's public and government affairs manager. "Until the city and contractor can determine the scope and magnitude of these issues, suspending the program is the only responsible thing to do."

The erroneous tickets on The Alameda are the first indication of problems since the city revamped its troubled program by bringing on board a new vendor, replacing all 83 of its radar-based speed cameras at a cost to the city of $2.2 million and overhauling a Police Department review process criticized as lax.

"I'm appalled," said Kathryn Falcone, a city resident whose car wrongly got two tickets from the camera four days apart last month. "It doesn't seem like there is any oversight at all."

The problems surfaced after staffing changes in the city's speed camera program and amid calls from state lawmakers for the city to voluntarily adopt elements of speed camera legislation that died in the final moments of the General Assembly session earlier this month.

The camera that has erroneously been issuing tickets sits in the 3900 block of The Alameda. The Sun obtained from motorists three citations that should not have been issued last month because the cars were clocked going less than 12 mph over the actual speed limit — the threshold at which camera tickets can be given under state law.

"Somebody dropped the ball big-time," said Ed Donnellan, a city resident who was cited March 29 for going 38 mph. "It raises questions in my mind about the real purpose of this. Is it to make the city safe for children in school zones, or is it just a flat-out money grab?"

Both of Falcone's tickets alleged she was traveling 39 mph in the 30 mph zone.

City transportation officials said Wednesday that 590 tickets were issued by the Alameda camera and that all will be voided or refunded without motorists having to do anything. Officials have not provided other information, such as how long that camera was in operation and when the city first became aware of problems there.

A Rawlings-Blake spokesman did not reply to a request for comment. A message left with the city's new vendor, Brekford Corp., which is paid $11.20 of each $40 citation fine, was not returned.

In recent weeks, city officials had sought to assure state lawmakers that Baltimore has improved its program, which has generated more than $48 million in fines since 2009. A Sun investigation last year found that seven cameras had logged erroneous speed readings, city judges routinely threw out tickets on appeal and police officers approved as many as six citations a minute.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes the stretch of The Alameda where the camera in question is positioned, expressed concern about the recent erroneous citations.

"I emphatically will request that this camera be checked and incorrect tickets be voided automatically," she said. She planned to ask the city to send a receipt to anyone who received an erroneous citation, "so they don't have to go through any hassles to reach somebody or go to court."

Clarke, speaking before the suspension was announced, also wondered if similar problems existed with any of the other new cameras that the city and Brekford have been rolling out since January.

"If this one is not [correct], are others incorrect as well?" she said. "Are we getting ready for another round of invalid tickets? They need to double-check all these new cameras for setting them wrong. Let's just hope this is the one exception to the rule of being careful."

Since 2009 the city has voided well over a thousand tickets issued by cameras set with the wrong speed limit. Those included three cameras on Northern Parkway and one on Cold Spring Lane.

The problems with the city's program spurred legislation in the General Assembly this year. As the 90-day session wound down, the House of Delegates passed a bill to limit camera placement to sites closer to schools, require local governments to appoint an ombudsman for citizen complaints and permit governments to modify contracts paying vendors a "bounty" for each $40 citation.

But the bill died in the Senate when Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and vocal speed camera opponent, mounted a mini-filibuster because he felt the bill did not go far enough. He was also unhappy about the elimination of a provision he wanted that would have mandated the calibration of each camera quarterly rather than annually.

With the clock nearing midnight on April 8, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had a choice to make, according to Senate staff: He could halt Pipkin's blocking maneuver and let a dozen other late-moving bills go down. Or he could let Pipkin stop the camera bill and get the other measures through. He chose the latter.

Among the bills lined up behind speed cameras were a landmark campaign finance bill and a Miller-backed bill putting a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from future diversions to other purposes.

Despite the demise of the speed camera bill, Del. James E. Malone Jr., the sponsor of the House measure, said he hoped the city and counties would choose to adopt some provisions.

"Hopefully, everybody heard what we were trying to do," said Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Hopefully, the municipalities will say, 'We've got to make sure we get this right.' Hopefully that will be the good that will come out of it."

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored a speed camera bill in the Senate, made a similar point. "We have to try again, but you kind of hope … you've created enough publicity and public debate that the jurisdictions are shamed into doing the right thing."

Malone said he worked on the bill for more than three months and got everyone — camera critics and their government supporters — to agree to the changes. "The bill put the confidence back in speed cameras," he said.

A task force formed by Rawlings-Blake to study the city's red-light and speed camera programs has compiled draft recommendations. But AAA's Averella, a task force member, said the panel will continue discussing those at its next meeting in May.

"It's certainly AAA's hope that some of the legislative measures will be recommended by the task force," she said.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department has confirmed staffing changes in the city's speed camera program.

No longer helping to run the program — but still with the department — is engineering supervisor Raj Sharma. In December The Sun reported that city officials were so worried last summer about inaccurate speeding tickets coming from a camera on West Cold Spring Lane that Sharma wrote an e-mail ordering the problem be fixed before it could "get out of hands."

Yet that camera remained in operation for several more months, continuing to record erroneous citations. And it was only in November that the city said it was investigating the source of the errors. It was one of five cameras eventually turned off before the entire network went dark Jan. 1 during a bumpy transition from Xerox State and Local Solutions to Brekford.

Sharma and traffic engineer Francis Udenta had both played visible roles in the city's speed camera program, detailing the system for reporters and giving presentations to the task force.

Udenta is still involved for the time being, said a department spokeswoman, Adrienne Barnes. He's part of a four-person team temporarily working full-time on the speed camera program. But neither he nor Sharma will be among the three employees who will manage and oversee the program after a current transition period ends.

Barnes would not give the reason for the changes. Sharma declined to comment when reached by a reporter, and Udenta did not respond to messages.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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