Maryland speed camera investigation brings delays, detours

Over months of investigating the proliferation of speed cameras in Maryland, many of The Baltimore Sun's attempts to get data and other information from government officials were met with delays, detours and dead ends.

Howard County, for example, refused to provide the license tag numbers of the vehicles that its cameras have nailed for speeding. By contrast, Baltimore, Baltimore County and the State Highway Administration — which fall under the same public-records law that Howard does — all provided tag numbers, even if it took some prodding and multiple attempts to get the correct figures.

Why the difference? Howard's lawyers said their hands were tied, and invoked a provision of state law that bars government from releasing speed camera photos. While The Sun's wasn't asking for the photos, the images happen to show a vehicle's license plate. So, the lawyers argued, the tag numbers themselves couldn't be released even as part an electronic database — and even though a car's tag doesn't identify its owner or reveal any personal information.

The Sun appealed, without success, to County Executive Ken Ulman's staff, noting that the county's lawyers were taking a more restrictive view than the attorney general's office, which represents the highway administration. The tag numbers were an important element for analyzing the programs: Without them, it was impossible to tally up repeat offenders, catalog how many school buses were ticketed or do other checks of the data.

Getting data from other jurisdictions presented other challenges. State highway officials had to ask the agency's contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc., to run the numbers three times. The first set was rife with thousands of errors. The second set omitted tickets for an entire half-year. In both cases, The Sun spotted the problems. The highway administration blamed a "translation error" when data was moved from one electronic format into an Excel spreadsheet.

Baltimore County initially balked at providing its own citation-level data. Officials there said the county did not need that to monitor the speed camera program, and so the data remained in possession of the county's contractor, also Xerox. When pressed, the county eventually said that Xerox, which has been paid more than $4 million for speed cameras by the county since 2010, would provide the data — but only at a cost of $1,500. And the county said The Sun would have to pick up that tab.

Xerox dropped the $1,500 demand after Don Mohler, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's chief of staff, called a company executive.

Then there is Baltimore City. Unlike other area governments, the city posts detailed citation data online. But because the information on the OpenBaltimore website doesn't include paid tickets that are more than a year old, The Sun asked the city for a complete citation record.

This spring the city provided detailed data on 736,000 speed camera citations and called it comprehensive. But just a few weeks later, a different arm of city government provided a chart that put the total at 1.1 million. It took months to get a clarification, which took the form of a new set of data showing the higher number had apparently been the right one.

That was only one issue that arose with the city. Much of the operation of the speed camera program was kept hidden from view: Officials wouldn't let The Sun observe the daily camera calibration done by Transportation Department employees. And while the city initially agreed to let a reporter visit Xerox's Montgomery Park office where citations are reviewed, it quickly canceled over "security" concerns.

The Police Department, meanwhile, would not allow its officers to be observed reviewing citations. That review is a legally required quality control measure that back-stops earlier reviews by the contractor and looks at things such as the clarity of the photo of a car's license tag. The department cited the change in police commissioners, though it wasn't clear how that might affect the day-to-day speed camera review process.

The Maryland State Police allowed The Sun to observe troopers checking highway work zone citations at a facility in Linthicum Heights. Senior Trooper Earl Beatty patiently explained in detail how he scrutinizes each ticket before clicking "approve" or "disapprove" on his computer.

Beatty also discussed some actual cases he had before him. That is, until a state police spokesman interrupted and made him stop, saying that went beyond what the spokesman thought had been agreed to before The Sun's visit.

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