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News Opinion Editorial

Less-than-candid camera [Editorial]

If you are like most of us living in the Baltimore area, you are probably sick of hearing about what a disgrace the city's speed camera program turned out to be — about the high error rate, about the slow response of city government to the problem and perhaps even about the stonewalling and vague explanations of exactly how it went so terribly wrong.

We're sick of it. Our readers are sick of it. And it's probably the case that most everyone in City Hall from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on down to the youngest clerk-typist is tired of thinking about this embarrassment, too.

Yet the latest revelation — one that the Rawlings-Blake administration clearly didn't want anyone to know about — is that the whole thing was even worse than previously reported. An audit conducted by URS Corp. and obtained by The Sun's Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert found that the 2012 error rate in a sample of tickets reviewed was more than 10 percent while another 26 percent of speeding tickets were judged "questionable." Considering the number of citations issued, that means something in the order of 70,000 drivers may have been wrongly charged with $2.8 million in fines.

That's outrageous, of course, but it's really much worse than that. The only reason we're even aware of that miserable failure rate is because someone somewhere leaked a copy of the audit. Officially, the administration refused to release it as a confidential legal document — and it continues to refuse to release the URS findings — although the $278,000 consultant's report was paid for by city taxpayers and performed on behalf of city residents.

Why? The official line is that releasing the audit would violate the settlement reached between the city and Xerox, which operated the camera system from 2009 to 2012. Yet how frustrating (although perhaps convenient for certain individuals) is that? Xerox walked away from that settlement with $2.3 million, and all we got was an audit we're not supposed to see.

So let's review. Baltimore runs a speed camera program that proved to be about as accurate as a drunken game of darts during a power failure. The company that ran it gets paid off, and the people of Baltimore have no way of knowing the extent of the mess, let alone whether city officials can be trusted to run speed cameras (or at least supervise a contractor) at all. Are we missing something?

We aren't against speed cameras. They've been proven to work elsewhere in discouraging speeders and thereby making the roads a bit safer. This isn't rocket science. And we appreciate Mayor Rawlings-Blake's efforts to make things right by taking the cameras off-line and to void or refund some tickets. But city government is not some private company that can sweep unpleasant circumstances under the rug on behalf of shareholders all in the name of limiting their "exposure." Baltimore residents are not only the victims of the city's actions, they're ultimately the shareholders, too, and the city should not be entering into agreements that prohibit the release of information that is plainly in the public interest.

What the people of Baltimore need more than anything is the truth. It's really that simple. While it's unfortunate that spelling out the extent of the speed camera failure may cost the city — opening it up to litigation from Xerox, for instance, or requiring far more refunds to motorists — that's the cost of democracy.

How could Baltimore be serious about putting a speed camera program back in place under the current circumstances? How could city residents possibly have faith? Indeed, this episode casts doubts on City Hall's credibility generally. Secrecy has a way of doing that.

Meanwhile, those living in other jurisdictions probably shouldn't cast stones. The episode raises legitimate concerns about the accuracy of other speed camera systems, too, and AAA Mid-Atlantic's recent call for audits of similar programs in Maryland ought to be heeded (although not all can be as easily double-checked for accuracy as the city's). If the mayor wants this episode to be put in the rearview mirror, she needs to let people know exactly what happened, why it happened and how it happened and then let the chips fall where they may.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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