City takes step toward new speed camera program

The Rawlings-Blake administration took a step Wednesday toward launching a new speed camera system as officials hired a consultant to assess up to 50 possible sites — over the objections of the City Council president.

The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor, voted 4-1 to pay Century Engineering of Hunt Valley $160,000 to be an "on-call" consultant to the city's speed and red-light camera network, once the largest in North America. The company will help city officials perform "site evaluations and engineering assessments" at potential cameras locations throughout Baltimore.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young cast the lone "no" vote, saying he would not support any speed camera spending until the council completes its investigation into a secret audit of the cameras.

"Until we complete this investigation, I'm not going to support any more contracts for more consultants," Young said. He added that he supports launching a new program "after we get all of the facts."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she wants to move forward with a smaller camera program. She promised Wednesday to cooperate with the council investigation but said she would not turn over any documents she believes would open the city to lawsuits from either of its former speed camera vendors. She cited contractual settlement agreements that prohibit the city from disparaging former vendors Xerox State & Local Solutions of Texas and Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County.

"We have agreements, but we are working very hard to find ways to get the information [to the council] without putting the city in jeopardy for lawsuits," the mayor said.

The council voted last week to investigate the circumstances behind the audit, which was commissioned by the administration but never released. The study, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, found error rates much higher than officials have acknowledged publicly.

URS Corp., the national engineering firm that performed the audit, found that the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 had an error rate of greater than 10 percent.

City lawyers have refused repeated requests to release the audit, citing "attorney work product privilege." Rawlings-Blake, responding to The Sun's reporting, said last week that URS was "not sufficiently qualified" to do a thorough report. She called the 90-page audit "incomplete."

"I look forward to working with the City Council as it prepares to do its investigation," Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday. "And I agree, the citizens of Baltimore deserve and should know all the facts. I'm hopeful that the council's involvement will provide the administration an opportunity to get all the facts out there within the proper context."

She took issue with comments made by Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the Taxation and Finance Committee, who has questioned whether other council members are independent enough from the administration to conduct the probe. He said he was concerned about the possibility of a "whitewash" if his committee did not lead the investigation.

"I know that most of the members of the council honestly want to understand the facts and the issues involved with the speed camera program," Rawlings-Blake said. "But I must say I am deeply disturbed by some of the irresponsible accusations and rhetoric that have been made against the administration and members of the council committed to getting all of the facts."

In 2012, when The Sun was reporting on problems with the speed cameras, officials from the mayor's office and the city Transportation Department said repeatedly that the system as run by Xerox had a very low error rate.

Khalil Zaied, then the head of the city's Transportation Department, wrote in a letter to The Sun that the rate was "less than a quarter of one percent." Zaied was later promoted to deputy mayor.

Xerox operated Baltimore's speed camera program from fall 2009 through 2012, when the city put the contract out for bid again. After The Sun found erroneous speed readings at seven cameras, Xerox said it had detected an error rate of 5.2 percent at five cameras. The city took them offline and issued about 350 refunds.

The city selected Brekford Corp. of Hanover to take over the system starting in January of last year. The company's brief tenure was beset by problems, and the city shut down the cameras in April.

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