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Harford sheriff delays plan to install cameras outside school buses

Months after legislation was approved to install exterior cameras on Harford County school buses, the program hasn't got off the ground, as the sheriff, who was not in office at the time, wants to evaluate cost, technology and other aspects.
Months after legislation was approved to install exterior cameras on Harford County school buses, the program hasn't got off the ground, as the sheriff, who was not in office at the time, wants to evaluate cost, technology and other aspects.

Months after Harford County elected officials rushed through legislation last fall authorizing the installation of exterior cameras on nearly 500 local school buses, in order to catch motorists who don't stop for them as required by law, the program has yet to get off the ground.

Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler wants to fully evaluate the proposal, which was initiated by his predecessor, including looking at the technology involved and the cost, his spokesperson said.

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"Before moving forward, the Sheriff would want to look closely at the technologies being offered, the effectiveness of the program, and the fiscal aspects of any contract to ensure the system is fair and equitable," Sheriff's Office spokesperson Cristie Kahler explained in an email Tuesday.

Kahler stressed, however, that Gahler "is continually looking for new ways to enhance safety in our communities, and school bus safety is no exception."

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Former sheriff Jesse Bane, whom Gahler succeeded in December after defeating Bane in the 2014 general election, was a vocal proponent of installing the cameras on the exterior of buses to catch drivers who don't stop for buses picking up or discharging students. Bane said such violations were on the rise in Harford and endangered students.

The proposal had support from parents, school bus contractors and the Harford County Board of Education. The Harford County Council approved Bill 14-30 in late October of 2014 giving the sheriff the authority to oversee the installation, operation and maintenance of "safety cameras" on school buses.

Billy Boniface, who was president of the county council at the time, introduced the legislation at the request of then-county executive David Craig. Like Bane, both have since left office, with Boniface moving on to become director of administration under current County Executive Barry Glassman.

"The council authorized the sheriff at the time, and of course the current sheriff is authorized to move forward in the way that he sees fit," county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Wednesday, adding that for the Glassman Administration, "children's safety is of paramount importance."

When the bus camera legislation was introduced, Bane, a Democrat, was in a heated election race with Gahler, a Republican. The law took effect on Dec. 26, 2014, nearly four weeks after Gahler was inaugurated.

While still sheriff, Bane said he expected to start having the cameras installed during the 2014-15 school year, which ended last month.

"I was in the process of contacting vendors to let them know I wanted to enter into conversations with them about their product," Bane, who became Bel Air's town administrator after leaving the Sheriff's Office, said Tuesday.

Bane said he had prior conversations with two vendors, who said they would cover the costs of installing and maintaining the cameras, as well as making any needed repairs to buses if a camera had to be removed.

"It wasn't anything that was going to cost the county anything," he said.

School buses typically have red flashing lights and stop arms – stop signs that extend from the side of the vehicle on a mechanical arm – to indicate to surrounding motorists that bus drivers are slowing down and stopping to let children board. Harford's school buses are equipped with interior cameras to monitor onboard activity.

The county legislation passed in 2014 allows for cameras that would record an image of a vehicle passing a stopped bus. A violator would then have to pay a $125 civil fine.

As described by Bane when the legislation was being discussed, the camera system would work similar to red light or speed enforcement cameras used in many jurisdictions.

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Ironically, the only place in Harford County where either type of camera used is inside the Town of Bel Air, which has had red light cameras at some intersections for several years. Bane did not advocate for legislation authorizing red light cameras in the county during his eight years as sheriff.

A fiscal note included with the bus camera legislation stated that "the vendor's costs and fees will be covered by any fines collected, with the county retaining any remaining revenue" and that any revenue collected by the county would be used for public safety initiatives, such as improving pedestrian safety, according to the fiscal note.

The law did not include a timeline for implementing the program, however.

Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, wrote in an email Tuesday that "there has been no movement to date, since the Sheriff wants to re-evaluate the data and program."

"Since this is a program for which they would have responsibility, we will wait until they have completed their work," Licata continued. "The [School] Board will not proceed on its own at this point."

According to figures provided by HCPS last fall, the system has 497 buses, 384 owned and operated by contractors and the remainder owned and operated by HCPS.

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