Lawmakers consider speed camera reforms

Maryland speed camera programs came under intense scrutiny Tuesday in Annapolis and Baltimore, with the General Assembly considering reforms ranging from a ban of the so-called "bounty system" to levying heavy fines against operators that issue erroneous tickets.

Meanwhile, a city councilman leading an investigation into a secret audit of the city's speed camera system said Baltimore's top lawyer has agreed to turn over hundreds of pages of documents to the committee conducting the probe.

A House of Delegates committee debated nearly a dozen proposals to reshape speed camera programs across the state, grappling with how to restore credibility to error-prone systems that can leave motorists with little recourse to fight tickets.

A bipartisan task force of legislators pushed a plan to require local governments to hire an ombudsman who could throw out erroneous tickets without forcing drivers to go to court. That same plan would put stricter rules on what counts as a school zone and phase out a "bounty system" that pays speed camera companies for each ticket, an arrangement derided by critics for creating a disincentive to prevent or toss out the bogus tickets, which cost motorists $40 each.

"It will go a long way toward improving the system that we have and restoring confidence the people should have in a government-run program like this," Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican and one of the co-sponsors of the task force plan, said to the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The other co-sponsor, Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said the proposal was more than a year and a half in the making. He reiterated that the goal is "to put confidence back in the system."

Their proposal was one of 11 lawmakers considered Tuesday in a flurry of election year bills to address an issue that vexes Maryland drivers but creates revenue for local governments. Baltimore City had been expecting more than $11 million from speed cameras for this year's budget until it shut down the system last spring because of inaccuracies.

Legislators also considered bills that would fine camera operators $1,000 for each ticket issued in error and another that would set a $125 fine that would be paid directly to an innocent motorist who got an erroneous ticket. Other proposals would change which days cameras could operate in school zones, require daily calibration of cameras, and call for a strict audit schedule. Another would repeal the use of speed cameras in Maryland completely.

The task force proposal to create an ombudsmen drew the most support, including from lawmakers who object to speed cameras entirely. Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Calvert County, said he would prefer the state to have no automated speed enforcement, but "if we're going to have this system, we should reform it."

The same plan is backed by AAA Mid-Atlantic, which supports speed cameras in general, as well as the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League, which together represent six counties and 25 cities and towns with speed camera systems.

Leslie Knapp, Jr., who testified on behalf of the counties, said the plan "will make for a better and more transparent speed camera program." Candace L. Donoho, director of government relations for the municipal league, said her organization also backed the proposal although some cities were "not happy" about giving up the so-called bounty system because it would cost them more to operate their programs.

"Reforms are needed," said John Townsend, public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic, citing the high error rates in speed camera programs. "This is something we've been concerned about since its inception," he said. "Where it went wrong was in the most surprising place."

In Baltimore, a City Council committee moved forward with an investigation of error rates. Councilman James B. Kraft said City Solicitor George Nilson has agreed to comply with the council's lengthy request for documents.

"They have indicated to us that they will voluntarily provide the information we have asked for," Kraft said. "They have not indicated to me that they intend to exercise any attorney-client privilege at this time." In an email, Nilson said his office has begun assembling the documents and will "vigorously work to assemble responsive ones." He said the administration was agreeing to waive attorney work-product privilege to provide some of them.

The council has authorized an investigation into circumstances behind an audit of the system by URS Corp., which was commissioned by the administration and completed last April but never released. The study, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, found error rates in city speed cameras much higher than city officials have acknowledged.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in an email that the mayor has "consistently said she looks forward to working with the council to get all the facts out."

"Her goal is for citizens to have full and complete information, beyond the snapshot they have been presented with to date which does not at all tell the full story," he said. "We are confident that at the end of the process, citizens will see that the administration acted appropriately when presented with full and complete information about the program."

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