By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
9:31 PM EST, November 19, 2012
As criticism of Baltimore's speed camera system mounted for a second day Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would not tolerate a single erroneous ticket issued by the cameras under her administration.
"We need to make sure we're administering the program accurately across the board," Rawlings-Blake said. "We're looking for a zero-error program."
State and city lawmakers pushed for more oversight of the camera program Monday after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the $40 citations issued to motorists can be inaccurate and the process unfair.
The Sun's investigation found that the city continued to operate a camera on Cold Spring Lane, months after learning it had issued an incorrect speed reading. The Sun also showed that city judges routinely toss out tickets for deficiencies and that the city has long ignored the state's narrow definition of a "school zone," in which most cameras are supposed to be placed. Nearly 6,000 tickets have been deemed invalid by the city, The Sun found. Baltimore also has implemented what a top Maryland judge called a "bounty system," which rewards speed camera vendors with a cut of each fine the system issues.
"There's clearly work that needs to be done in oversight of the program," said Del. Luke Clippinger, who represents Baltimore. "The city is now aware of some of the problems they've had with the cameras, and I hope they'll fix them right away."
Meanwhile, Towson-based attorney Marshall Henslee said he and his clients at the York Container Co. plan to contest between 10 and 15 tickets its drivers received from the Cold Spring Lane camera that The Sun determined was issuing erroneous tickets. The company received a series of tickets before realizing something was amiss, he said.
"For a while, they were just paying them off," Henslee said. "Eventually, they noticed many of their drivers came to them and said, 'There was no way I was driving that fast.' They realized there was something messed up about that camera."
Rawlings-Blake has created a task force to study the cameras. The committee's eight members include representatives of city and state government, a driver advocacy group and a community group.
"I trust them and depend on them to bring their professional talents to the table to advise," Rawlings-Blake said.
Del. Shawn Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat, questioned whether such a task force was independent enough to properly evaluate the program. He called the erroneous tickets "a shame" and suggested the city staff its cameras with police officers to check if motorists are actually speeding. He also suggested the city reduce its number of cameras, which now stands at 83.
"If they didn't have so many damn cameras, they could actually have a human to back up the cameras," Tarrant said.
Baltimore's speed camera revenue has steadily increased over the past few years. The city received $19.2 million from the program over the past year — a nearly tenfold increase in the three years the cameras have been operating. In 2010, the city took in just $2.4 million.
Rawlings-Blake said the city's goal is to eventually reduce those totals to zero.
"In order for this speed camera program to work in the way that it's supposed to, we have to change the behavior, which will lead to getting zero revenue because everyone, during school hours in school zones, is driving at the proper speed limit," she said.
Rawlings-Blake does not plan to add more speed cameras in the near future, according to her budget projections, and the city expects its speed camera revenue to start falling soon. The city is counting on $11.4 million from speed cameras next year; $7.5 million in 2014; and $6.9 million in 2015.
Early Monday morning, the Rawlings-Blake administration reacted to The Sun's investigation by sending out data comparing its speed camera program to Washington, D.C.'s. The district took in nearly triple the revenue in fines and issues higher-priced tickets, the release stated.
Ragina Averella, the manager of public and governmental affairs for driver-advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic, criticized that response.
"I'm not really sure why the city of Baltimore would want to compare itself to the District of Columbia on this issue," she said. "Their [D.C.'s] speed camera system ... is commonly referred to as a 'speed trap system.' Not only that, it truly is an unfair comparison because the speed cameras in the district are not and never have been placed in school zones."
Spokesman Ian Brennan said the mayor's office only sent out the comparison with Washington to underscore the larger revenues of that system.
In The Sun's article Sunday, Xerox State & Local Solutions, Baltimore's speed camera vendor, called the city's automated traffic enforcement system the largest in North America.
"We obviously welcome AAA's input regarding our camera system, that is why the mayor added them to the task force," Brennan said.
Tarrant and state Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell also took issue with the pay-per-ticket contracts that Baltimore City and Baltimore County have entered into with their vendors. Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia has referred to such incentive-driven contracts as a "bounty system."
"If you have a bounty system, people want to write tickets," Jones-Rodwell said. "The more tickets, the more money. It's an inconvenience. This isn't supposed to be a program that is being developed for the vendor. It's a program for the community."
Since the program's inception, the city has collected more than $38.6 million in speed camera fines. About $10.4 million was paid in fees to current vendor Xerox State & Local Solutions, which gets up to $19.20 for each ticket the system issues. The company, which also manages other camera programs in the Baltimore area, is scheduled to lose its contract with the city in January, after officials concluded that another company, Hanover-based Brekford Corp., would generate more money for the city.
On Sunday, City Councilman Brandon Scott called for a hearing on Baltimore's vast and lucrative speed camera program, saying he was "angry" about erroneous tickets and wanted to see the system improved.