House to take up speed camera reform bill

With just six days left in the General Assembly session, a House of Delegates committee is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill that would increase oversight of speed camera programs in Maryland, tighten rules on camera placement and more clearly bar government contracts that pay vendors on a per-ticket basis.

But the legislation, drafted after The Baltimore Sun documented a range of problems in the city's program, would not require governments to put precise time stamps on their citation photos — a necessity for motorists to be able to verify their tickets, according to experts.

And the bill would grandfather in existing per-ticket contracts, meaning that Baltimore could keep using the so-called "bounty system" until 2016. Gov. Martin O'Malley contends that state law bars that approach and has called on jurisdictions with such contracts to "change their program." Critics say per-ticket payments give vendors a financial incentive to process questionable citations.

The legislation is being shaped amid lobbying by local governments, which take in millions of dollars from speed cameras operating under current law. Representatives of Montgomery County and elsewhere have resisted major changes, saying the problems are limited to Baltimore.

Time is running out: The 90-day General Assembly session is set to end Monday night. The Senate has passed a speed camera bill sponsored by Towson Democrat James Brochin, but lawmakers in both chambers have made it clear that the House measure will be the main one considered.

"I think we have plenty of time," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs a House transportation subcommittee. He is shepherding the House bill, which he said could be amended further. Asked about the omission of a time stamp requirement, he said, "That may be something we deal with" Wednesday.

The bill's progress was delayed Tuesday when Baltimore's House delegation called an emergency meeting to push for new provisions applicable only in the city. One would compel the city to cover up "photo enforcement" signs when portable cameras were not present. Another would force the city's vendor to pay a motorist $250 if a judge concluded that a citation had been issued erroneously.

"Because Baltimore City's program was so flawed and became an embarrassment for Baltimore City, we have to make sure people have confidence in the program," said Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat.

The Sun's investigation focused on Baltimore's speed camera program, documenting erroneous speed readings from seven of the city's 83 cameras and finding that city judges routinely throw out tickets on appeal for various deficiencies, including concerns over whether the correct vehicle was identified.

Baltimore officials this week told lawmakers that the city has overhauled its program by hiring a new vendor, replacing all of its speed cameras with more sophisticated "tracking radar" models and revamping the citation review carried out by the Police Department.

"People have been fired," acting Deputy Transportation Director Barbara Zektick told Malone's subcommittee Monday — the first time a city official has said the problems cost anyone a job. But an agency spokeswoman refused to say how many people had been dismissed, or why or when.

"We're not going to talk about any personnel issues, but there have been major changes both in the Police Department and Transportation Department," city lobbyist Mary Pat Fannon told Del. Curt Anderson when he raised the issue Tuesday.

The House bill drew praise from AAA Mid-Atlantic tempered with disappointment over missing pieces.

"Overall, we're moving in the right direction," said Ragina Averella, the group's public and government affairs manager. "Is it going to be perfect legislation? Probably not. Will it be better than it's been? Absolutely."

The bill as drafted would:

•Restrict cameras to areas around schools where children are picked up or dropped off, and on roads where students walk or ride a bicycle to school. Current law permits cameras within a half-mile of a school. Citations can be issued to drivers clocked at least 11 mph over the limit.

•Require local governments with speed cameras to designate an official or employee to investigate and respond to questions or complaints. That person would have the power to void "erroneous citations" so the motorist would not have to contest the ticket in court. The city says its officials already can void tickets prior to court.

•Require each government that uses speed cameras to have a dedicated program administrator who would have to complete an approved training curriculum.

•Bar the issuance of any tickets at a new camera location for at least 15 days after proper signs were installed.

•Prohibit governments from paying a contractor "on a per-ticket basis" if the company "in any manner" operates the speed camera system "or administers or processes" tickets. Existing law bars payments if a contractor "operates" a program, but local governments have gotten around that by arguing that they, not the vendor, are the operator.