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News Opinion Editorial

The lie at the heart of Baltimore's speed camera program

Maryland law says that "if a contractor operates a speed camera system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid." Baltimore City, like some other jurisdictions around the state, has nonetheless paid the private firms that manage its camera system on a per-ticket basis. The way Baltimore officials and others around the state have justified this apparent contradiction is by contending that the government is, technically, the "operator" of the speed cameras, and the vendor is merely under contract to "provide support services."

Now, however, comes the news that, due to a bungled transition between one vendor and the next, Baltimore City's lucrative speed camera system has been offline altogether since Jan. 1. When the city's contract with its old vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, expired at the end of the year, Xerox left the cameras in place but took the software it had used to run them. This should not have been a surprise; the city's request for proposals for a new camera vendor indicated that the winning bidder would have to supply its own software, and Xerox warned the city in writing at least five months ago that the new contractor would not inherit its software. Without it, the new contractor, Brekford Corp., has been unable to operate the cameras and may not be able to for a period of some months.

How the blame for this mess should be apportioned among the city, Xerox and Brekford remains to be determined, and given the millions of dollars in revenue Baltimore is likely to lose as a result of the problem — which has also rendered its red light cameras inoperable — it may eventually be settled in court.

But the debacle raises a broader question about the legality of Baltimore City's speed camera system, and by extension, those of other jurisdictions with similar per-ticket contracts. It is now quite clear that, no matter what city officials may claim, they are no more capable of operating Baltimore's speed cameras than they are of putting a man on the moon.

In 2012, the Court of Appeals heard a case from Montgomery County related to the question of whether it is legal for a vendor to be paid a per-ticket fee under Maryland's speed camera law. (The legislature voted to grant Montgomery County the right to install speed cameras before allowing them elsewhere, but the language governing payments to camera vendors in the county-specific statute is identical to the later statewide law.) The state's highest court sided with the county on the grounds that the state speed camera law did not create a private cause for action, so the question of what constitutes an "operator" of a speed camera system was never definitively answered.

Nonetheless, the court declared itself "dubious" that Montgomery County should automatically be considered the operator of its speed cameras simply because it says so or because its contract with Xerox asserted that to be the case.

The authors of Maryland's speed camera statute have said that the kind of arrangement Baltimore had with Xerox was not what they had in mind when they drafted that language. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said any jurisdictions that pay by the ticket need to change their contracts. The chairman of the city's legislative delegation has said it will be a top priority in this General Assembly session to eliminate any question of semantics around the term "operate" and ensure that no vendor is paid on a per-ticket basis.

Nonetheless, Baltimore is moving forward in its negotiations with Brekford with a contract that would pay the company $11.20 per $40 citation, and a spokeswoman for the transportation department recently told The Sun's Scott Calvert that the city's lawyers believe the arrangement conforms to state law.

A contract that puts a profit incentive on the issuance of tickets erodes what little public trust is left in Baltimore's speed cameras after reports by Mr. Calvert and Luke Broadwater about widespread errors in the system. The legalistic insistence by the city that it is the "operator" of its cameras, when it is clearly not in any rational sense, only makes matters worse.

The city needs to abandon its current model of paying its camera vendor and adopt one that pays a flat fee. Such a switch could delay the finalization of a new contract to run the cameras, but that is of little practical consequence since the cameras are not presently running and are unlikely to be operational in the near future. Better for city officials to address the issue now than to wait for the General Assembly to force their hand.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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