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News Opinion Editorial

Speed camera questions [Editorial]

Baltimore's City Council is taking the right step by launching an investigation into a secret audit of the city's speed camera system. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's statements on what the audit signified, how seriously it should be taken and what was done as a result have been opaque and at times contradictory. Giving lawmakers the power to subpoena documents and compel testimony from administration officials is the only way the people of Baltimore are going to get to the bottom of this. Here are a few of the issues the council needs to explore:

•What prompted the city to shut the cameras down? This week, Mayor Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Kevin Harris, told The Sun's Luke Broadwater that the administration shut off all of Baltimore's red light and speed cameras within a week after receiving the audit, which showed error rates of 10 percent in a sample of about 1,000 tickets. On the face of things, that makes little sense, since the audit covered tickets issued when the system was being run by Xerox State and Local Solutions, which had been replaced as the city's vendor four months before. In April, when the system was shut down, it consisted of entirely new equipment being run by a different vendor, Brekford Corp.

Moreover, the city's previous explanation for its decision to shut down the cameras made no mention of the Xerox audit and was, in itself, questionable. City officials have claimed that the Brekford system was shut down after a meeting with the vendor on Monday, April 15. However, emails obtained by The Sun under the Public Information Act show that city transportation officials ordered first one camera and then the entire system to be shut down on April 16, within hours after receiving an inquiry from Sun reporter Scott Calvert about a malfunctioning camera on The Alameda.

•When did the city decide the Xerox audit was unreliable? The audit of the Xerox system was conducted last spring by the consultant URS Corp., well after Xerox had been replaced. The evident purpose of the audit was not to determine whether Baltimore motorists had been unfairly ticketed. It was to assist the city in a dispute with Xerox about how much (if anything) the city owed the vendor to close out its contract.

At the time that the audit was conducted, the city was withholding its final three months worth of payments to Xerox, a decision City Solicitor George Nilson said in April was a "prudent" move because of "pending issues needing to be resolved." Baltimore eventually wound up paying Xerox $2.3 million to settle its accounts. The city refused to release the audit — even to members of the City Council — pursuant to a confidentiality agreement prohibiting the disclosure of all communications and documents exchanged between the parties "relating and referring to, and resulting in" the settlement of the dispute.

When The Sun published the audit last week, Mr. Harris released a statement saying, "This document is an inconclusive report that does not reflect any final conclusions about the accuracy of the speed camera program." Is that how the city characterized the audit when it presented it to Xerox?

•Does the city feel any obligation to refund erroneous tickets? In his statement last week, Mr. Harris said, "It is false to insinuate that the city sought to keep the public in the dark when we acted quickly to take the speed camera program offline due to errors, voided erroneous citations and provided refunds to impacted residents." This week, Mr. Harris said the city had refunded 6,253 Xerox speed camera tickets over the years, 3,091 of them because of errors. But he said none of those refunds came as a result of the audit because the city considers it "irresponsible" to issue refunds based on an "inconclusive" report.

First, if the report URS produced is so "inconclusive," why did the city decide this month to expand its contract with the consultant to the tune of $237,000, on top of the $278,000 it already paid? And second, even if the audit was "inconclusive," is it not also "irresponsible" for the city not to follow up on the tickets the consultant identified as questionable and make its own determination about refunds? And what of the 16,000 tickets issued by Brekford in the weeks before the city determined its camera system was so unreliable that it needed to be shut down altogether — and eventually that the contract with Brekford needed to be terminated, at a cost to taxpayers of $600,000, plus another $2.2 million for the now useless cameras?

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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