Ari Ashe February 19, 2014 1:50 am02/19/2014 01:50am
A measure would create an ombudsman in each county and town that would serve as a customer service liaison between police and drivers.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A new position will work to ease drivers’ frustration with speed cameras in Maryland after a House committee’s meeting Tuesday.
At a hearing Tuesday, the House Environmental Matters Committee heard testimony on a number of bills to reform speed-camera programs, ultimately deciding to accept a measure that would create an ombudsman in each county and town that would serve as a customer service liaison between police and drivers.
House Bill 929, proposed by Delegates James Malone, D-Baltimore County, and Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, would also explicitly define a school zone as K-12 and requires cameras to be located within a half-mile of the center point of the school.
“When people have a complaint or a concern, the driver will be able to go to [the ombudsman], as opposed to the court. Hopefully, a lot of these erroneous tickets that people are getting will be able to get taken care of with an ombudsman,” Malone says.
“We’re going to watch the effect of the ombudsman across the state as much as we can. I’m sure when we pass state law that the local jurisdictions are adherent to the law. If they don’t, in my opinion, repercussions will have to be taken.”
McMillan says the ombudsman would give drivers a fair shake.
“An individual who gets a ticket from a speed camera can go to the individual, who’ll look at the records surrounding that camera, talk to the liaison. The liaison at the point can dismiss the ticket, and you wouldn’t even have to go to court. I think this is going to be useful to Maryland citizens.”
But some aren’t too confident that smaller jurisdictions in Prince George’s County will pick a reputable liaison. WTOP has chronicled problems in Fairmount Heights and Morningside and, in recent years, problems have also surfaced in Riverdale Park.
“Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, what we need is oversight: Having the Attorney General looking at this will bring fresh light to this dark subject,” says AAA Mid-Atlantic Spokesman John Townsend.
Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, an opponent of speed cameras, says the new position won’t make things worse.
“We’re not saying having an ombudsman is a bad thing,” Ely says.
“But the committee seems so determined to leave every local government to police themselves. You’ve got to wonder: Some of the local governments we’ve had the most problems with, who are they going to pick? Like in Morningside, they could pick their existing code enforcement officer.”
Ely is referring to Regina Foster, who was recently named code enforcement officer after stepping down from the town council for the second time in three years. In 2011, Foster resigned after a Maryland State Police investigation found that she may have inappropriately voided red-light camera tickets. She denied any wrongdoing.
Morningside driver Mike Weathersby testified on Tuesday. WTOP Ticketbuster helped him after his video showed him going the speed limit, yet he still received a ticket from the town. Weathersby recalled the story WTOP reported on last November to lawmakers, many of whom came to him afterward and apologized for the ordeal.
“Today was the first day I heard about it. I will be happy to work with Delegate Aisha Braveboy to see what we can do, to make sure it doesn’t continue or happen again,” says Malone.
Braveboy, D-Morningside, sent a letter to Morningside and urged them on WTOP Radio to conduct an independent audit of their program, similar to an audit conducted in Baltimore last year. Morningside told WTOP that if we wanted to conduct an independent audit, we would have to pay for it ourselves. Both Baltimore and Morningside used Brekford Corp. as their vendor.
“The truth is, Morningside is making money off of speed-camera tickets. It’s the cost of doing business to ensure whatever device you’re using is accurate. They should build the cost of an independent audit into their contracts and any town budget decisions they make. If you don’t have the desire to ensure the speed cameras in your town are accurate, then you shouldn’t be using them,” says Braveboy.
McMillan says HB 929 will help in places like Morningside.
“Quite candidly, a lot of the things that came out of Baltimore City and those jurisdictions you’ve identified in Prince George’s County were the motivation for this legislative,” he says.
“Under this legislation, everything that Morningside has done, as far as records, would be open to the public. It also requires the Town of Morningside to have their equipment calibrated daily and checked and validated annually from someone other than Brekford. I think all these things will restore confidence in towns like Morningside.”
HB 929 would also end the so-called bounty program, or the per-ticket fee that jurisdictions pay their vendors. On a traditional $40 ticket, the jurisdiction keeps about 60 or 65 percent, with the rest going to companies such as Xerox Local Solutions or Brekford. However, the provision would only go into effect in 2017, once current contracts expire.
“Eliminating the per-ticket fee is a good idea. One of the things on top of the public confidence list was to [see] that vendors don’t get paid on every violation. So we all agree that if this makes the speed-camera bill a better law, than that’s something we need to incorporate into our practice,” says Maj. Robert Liberati, who runs Prince George’s County’s speed- and red-light camera program.
Several speed-camera proposals were thrown out in a subcommittee hearing later in the day.
A proposal from Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, to fine speed camera vendors up to $1,000 for each erroneously issued ticket, was rejected for a second straight year.
Braveboy’s bill that would’ve given the Attorney General’s office oversight powers on speed cameras was also rejected. Malone tells WTOP that there’s no money at the AG’s office or with various state’s attorneys to take on those responsibilities. He says lawmakers were willing to give them the power, but all have declined the request.
A measure that would’ve forced jurisdictions to give drivers timestamped data that would’ve allowed them to calculate their speed independently was also defeated.
The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will take up similar speed-camera bills next Tuesday.