Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lawsuit Challenges "Ombudsman's" Qualifications

Attorney Paul Layer has filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleging that the Local Designee (aka "Ombudsman") selected for Montgomery County's speed camera program failed to comply with a transparency requirement of state law and furthermore does not meet the requirements to hold the position.

The "Local Designee" position was created in 2014 under a bill which amended the state's speed camera law.  Among the requirements of the position was that records of complaints be kept on file and be made available to inspection.  On February 20, 2014, Mr Layer requested access to such complaints issued during the month of January 2015.  "Local Designee" David McBain responded that they had received 14 requests for citation review.  "However, on April 6, 2015, Local Designee McBain again contacted Petitioner, by telephone and e-mail, informing Petitioner that Assistant Montgomery County Attorney, David  Stevenson, instructed him NOT to provide the 14 requests previously identified by Local Designee McBain as responsive to Petitioner’s request. " wrote Layer in his petition to the court.  Layer had specifically agreed to the redaction of any identifiable information from the records.    The county responded that they would only provide the documents if Layer re-entered his request under the Public Information Act.  This would have, among other things, allowed the county an additional 30 days to delay providing the documents even though more than a month had already elapsed, and permitted them to charge fees or claim specific exemptions to disclosure under the MPIA.  The petition requests the court provide a "writ of mandamus" requiring that McBain release the documents under article 21-809(b)(1)(ix)5.

Layer further noted in his petition to the court that the state law provided that “[a] local designee may not be employed by a speed monitoring system contractor or have been involved in any review of a speed monitoring system citation, other than a review of a citation under this subparagraph.”  David McBain is the Deputy Director of the Montgomery County Traffic Division, and is second in command to Captain Tom Didone who runs the Traffic Division and thus the automated traffic enforcement division.  McBain thus has supervisory control over the automated traffic enforcement division whenever Captain Didone is unavailable.  The complain alleged that McBain thus does not meet the qualifications to serve as local designee because a supervisory role necessarily makes him involved in the review of citations: "Upon information and belief, and as provable after further discovery, Local Designee McBain has been, and continues to be, “involved in any review of a speed monitoring system citation, other than a review of a citation under [MD TRAN 21-809(b)(1)(ix)].”  Consequently, Local Designee McBain’s designation as Montgomery County’s “local designee” violates MD TRAN 21-809(b)(1)(ix)3." stated the complaint.  The petition requests the court provide a "writ of mandamus" requiring that McBain be removed from the role of local designee.

David McBain and his superior Captain Tom Didone were personally involved in the informal "workgroup" which wrote the reform bill creating the "Local Designee" position, having affirmed that Delegate James Malone called them into meetings to discuss the legislation (to which opponents of speed cameras were not invited). In testimony to the legislature Captain Didone used the term "Ombudsman" to describe the position, a term which implies a degree of independence.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has been critical of the so called "reform" measure, with our position being that what was required was OUTSIDE oversight and/or scrutiny, and that local governments would merely assign the "ombudsman" role to an existing employee within the program who would act to defend the agency's policies rather than scrutinizing them,  Since the act went into effect, Montgomery County has disavowed the use of the term "ombudsman" in writing several times.

Edmunston Police Chief Charged with Malfeasance

Prince George's County has charged the police chief of the small town of Edmunston with two counts of malfeasance while in office after an investigation by WTOP News.

The WTOP investigation alleged that Police Chief Stephen Walker improperly voided a parking ticket issued to the town's mayor.  A group calling themselves Edmonston Residents for Change also began circulating fliers accusing the chief of corruption and improper acts while in office.  However prior to the charges the city council voted 3-2 to keep chief walker in his position.

The WTOP investigation also found that the police chief had been issued a set of untraceable confidential license plate tags (aka "ghost plates").  Such plates are normally only used for undercover investigations, but the vehicle in question was equipped with emergency lights and extra antennae which would seem to render it impractical for undercover work.  Such ghost plates would render a vehicle immune to photo and parking tickets, since the registration would be untraceable, however it's unclear whether any tickets were actually avoided in this manner.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Maryland Cuts Toll Rates

Governor Larry Hogan announced that first time in 50 years tolls will be lowered in the state.

The Maryland Transportation authority approved toll reductions on Thursday which would take effect on several roads, bridges, and tunnels across the state.

Chesapeak Bay Bridge would drop from $6 to $4 for those paying cash, or from $5.40 to $2.50 for EZPass users.  The Harry Nice Bridge toll would drop from $5.40 to $4.50.  Rush hour tolls on the ICC would be reduced from 25 cents per mile to 22 cents, and outside rush hours overnight drivers would see tolls drop from $0.17 per mile to $0.07.  Tolls for the Baltimore Harbor and Ft. McHenry tunnels would be reduced as well.

The state would also eliminate the $1.50 EZPass monthly maintenance fee.

Between 2009 and and 2014, tolls collected on existing facilities (ie not counting tolls collected on the new ICC) rose 75%, according to an analysis of MDTA financial documents by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, due to several large toll increases.

“These back-to-back massive toll hikes meant struggling Marylanders faced more to go to work every day, and they also had to pay more for family trips to the beach as they crossed the beautiful Chesapeake,” stated Governor Hogan.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Year After Speed Camera “Reform”, Bounty System Contracts Alive and Well

A year after state lawmakers and other snake oil salesmen told the public that legislation passed in 2014 “ended the bounty system”, most local speed camera programs have yet to make any changes to their contracts to end the practice of paying contractors based on ticket volume.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance took a poll of nine local governments to see whether their contractors were paid a cut of each ticket a year ago, and whether there has been any change.  Not one of the agencies we asked responded that their payment terms had changed.

County/Municipality Contract Terms a Year Ago Contract Terms Today
Montgomery County $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Prince George's County 37.5% of each $40 fee. “The parties agree to the maximum fee as allowable under state law"37.5% of each $40 fee. "The parties agree to the maximum fee as allowable under state law"
Baltimore County $18.95 per paid citation $18.95 per paid citation
Rockville $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Gaithersburg $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Takoma Park <$16.25 per paid citation, plus a $0.25 processing charge, plus $2 “convenience fee” charged to citizens$16.25 per paid citation, plus a $0.25 processing charge, plus $2 “convenience fee” charged to citizens
College Park 39% of revenue resulting from payments of Citations 39% of revenue resulting from payments of Citations
Salisbury Thirty-five percent (35%) of monthly collections Thirty-five percent (35%) of monthly collections
Laurel 40% of revenues 40% of revenues

Montgomery County Did Not Exercise Existing Flat Fee Contract Option
Montgomery County's representative confirmed  that the county's contract included a clause which was to have permitted the county to immediately switch to a flat fee if the law was changed.  "In the event that the applicable law changes to prohibit the per paid citation compensation formula, the County will compensate the Contractor as follows in lieu of any amount provided in Section III.A. and Section III.D. above".  The alternate payment terms, which Montgomery County has not chosen to switch to as of the date of our inquiry, would have been a flat fee per month per camera.  The county's response confirmed that this clause was NOT exercised after the reform bill went into effect, and that their per-ticket “bounty system” arrangement with Xerox continues unchanged.

Meanwhile, the city of Laurel confirmed that they had extended their existing contract terms in may of 2014, a month after “reform” legislation was passed.  The “reform” bill included a loophole which allowed local governments until 2 months after the bill was approved by the legislature to “grandfather in” new contracts.  We had previously reported how one speed camera contractor hadd boasted in their press releases about having locked in new long term agreements and that as a result the reform bill would not affect them.

Laurel's Slow Response To Simple Questions
The City of Laurel took a total of 33 days to provide a reply to a few simple questions.  We send the request to the city on February 27.  They acknowledged receipt of the letter we sent.  On March 2nd, we asked the city “Please confirm receipt of this email and provide the direct contact information for the "local designee" so that I can ask them how long until I can anticipate a reply."  The response was   “Your e-mail was forwarded to the City Solicitor’s office for a response” and gave the name “John Shay”, who is an attorney working for the firm Bennan McKenna Manzi Shay.  After several follow up inquiries to Mr Shay, to which we received short acknowledgements, we were told on March 24th that “I will have a response in the next day or two “.   It was not until April 1 that we got a response, which indicated that it was not Mr Shay but rather Leutenant John Hamilton who was “local designee” (aka “ombudsman”).  Thus the city had not forwarded our request to the “local designee” as we had asked, and instead subjected it to a 4 week long legal review.

Takoma Park also told us our letter needed to go through “legal review” before it could be answered.

Is This an “Ombudsman”?
The term “Ombudsman” is generally defined to mean “”a commissioner who acts as independent referee between individual citizens and their government or its administration”.  So are the selected people in any sense independent or objective?

We inquired of some agencies who was their “local designee”, a position which some have referred to as an “ombudsman”.  The City of Rockville acknowledged that their “Ombudsman” is Michael England, the commander in charge of the program.  “The Photo Enforcement Unit has been under my command since 1 July 2013.” wrote England.

The City of Gaithersburg, meanwhile, appointed their chief speed camera operator as “Ombudsman”.

Takoma Park stated that their “local designee” was “Ms Cannatella”, whose responsibilities included “Daily Deployment of each camera”.  However our letter addressed to the “Local Designee” and asking for a reply specifically from that person, was not responded to by Ms Cannatella, but rather by Captain Tyrone Collington, the commander in charge of the program.

Laurel stated their "local designee" was previously a speed camera operator, and was given the new title of Local designee in September 2013 (the statute creating that title had not been passed until 2014).  A quick google search for the individual's name indicated he has held the role of the community policing and traffic unit supervisor in the past.

Montgomery County repeated that they do not use the term “Ombudsman” to describe their local designee, a statement they have made to us at least twice in the past.  Montgomery initially assigned the program manager Richard Harrison as the "local designee", but now the position apparently belongs to the programs's deputy director Lieutenant David McBain, (both of whom answer directly to Captain Tom Didone, the director and most stalwart defender of all aspects of the county's speed camera program).

Will they ever change?
A few local governments indicated that they were required to change their contract terms by June of 2017, and a few indicated that they were “required to move to a flat fee”.  However in previous instances Montgomery County has stated in the past that they were looking at “hybrid leases” or “tiered systems”.  It's unclear whether such alternate arrangements might still be based on ticket volume without using the term "per ticket"... an won't be until after such arrangements are actually signed.

It is worth noting that the bounty system was supposed to be banned under the original language of the law, present when the state's speed camera statute was first passed (based on the fiscal policy notes of the bill and statements by former council member Phil Andrews).  However Montgomery County proceeded to invented the loophole which lets them pay on a per ticket basis.  In fact Ike Leggett publicly stated that "Under the contract, we pay a flat fee", when in fact they had a per-ticket contract, shortly before the details of the arrangement became generally known to the press.  So we might be forgiven for not accepting assurances now that they will eventually adopt a flat fee, given that public officials lied about this in the past.

"Reform" Legislation Crafted in Secret Meetings Which Excluded Camera Opponents, Public, and Press
The Maryland Drivers Alliance identified the language in last year's "reform" bill that could be used to continue paying based on ticket volume forever before the bill was even passed, but the legislature ignored our concerns.  In fact, last year's reform bill was drafted by an informal “Speed Camera Reform Work Group”, the existence of which was acknowledged in an email written by Montgomery County Captain Tom Didone dated August 27, 2014, : "Last year, when I worked on the Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup, I was informed by staff that legislators voted to remove the “Squealer provision” as it was referred to when they revised the law in 2009.  It is my personal opinion that the legislators took this action without being fully informed of the consequences because they did not have the same workgroups as they did last year."  The Maryland Association of Counties also referred to this group in a press release: "During the 2013 Session, the House Environmental Matters Committee formed a  stakeholders’ workgroup...".

Montgomery County's new local designee confirmed that Delegate James Malone organized the group's "off the books" meetings in a letter dated April 6, 2015 "Delegate Malone would hold meetings to discuss the HB 929 and invite people to attend and participate into the discussion.  Mr. Harrison, Major Liberati and I were, along with others were invited to participate.  This was part of his legislation process and I am unaware of any minutes, agendas or other information."  Mr Richard Harrison was the program manager from Montgomery County's speed camera program, and Major Liberati is the head of Prince George's County's program,  They were apparently intimately involved in meetings to write the reform legislation which allegedly "ends the bounty system", opponents of speed cameras were not.

Monday, March 30, 2015

National Camera News: Two-Faced Triple-A's Failed Attempt to Bring Speed Cameras to Indiana

The Indiana branch of Insurance Company AAA launched an unsuccessful lobbying campaign to bring speed cameras to another state.

We reported some time ago how "AAA Hoosier" had expressed on their website that "the AAA Hoosier Motor Club will focus its efforts on supporting legislation that would allow for the use of speed enforcement cameras in construction zones, school zones".   Last year the organization stepped up its campaign in favor of photo enforcement by promoting a series of news articles and editorials supporting legislation which would have introduced speed cameras to the state.  The bill also authorized cameras on school bus stop arms, and advocating for that portion of the bill was largely used by proponents to distract from the speed camera element of the bill.

In an editorial on NWI.com, AAA's spokesperson Greg Seiter plead for the legislature to pass the photo enforcement bill.  "The issue isn't driver privacy, government intrusion or motorist inconvenience. House Bill 1404 is about preventing injuries and saving lives."

House Bill 1404 would have put speed cameras in highway work zones, similar to the ones used in Maryland.  However the Indiana bill which Insurance Company AAA supported would have had $300 fines, which would have escalated as high as $1000 after multiple violations.  The bill explicitly permitted "bounty system," paying contractors a 25% cut of each ticket, which in other states (including Maryland) AAA has claimed was a conflict of interest.  The bill Insurance Company AAA supported also contained a presumption of guilt by explicitly stated that "There is a rebuttable presumption that the owner of a vehicle that is the subject of a recorded image was operating the vehicle when the image was recorded" -- a presumption which is in fact not true in many cases.

The National Motorist Association, the only nationwide organization to defend motorist rights, wrote a counter-editorial to Insurance Company AAA's.  The NMA's John Bowman argued that "Speed Cameras won't live up to safety promises" and that "putting speed cameras in highway work zones will do little to protect workers since only around 14 percent of work zone fatalities involve workers and many of these are caused by construction vehicles or other non-traffic related causes, according to the U.S. Department of Labor."  "The purpose of all camera-based traffic enforcement is to enrich the for-profit camera companies and their business partners: the public officials who become addicted to the easy revenue cameras provide" Bowman stated.

Barnet Fagel, a Chicago based video forensic expert and NMA advocate, argued  “Where’s the due process? Who’s the person who’s going to testify in court against you, the camera?”  Fagel also noted "Even the finest cameras are subject to error; cosine angle factor error and operator error. I’ve had one (case) where a car was on the back of a tow truck being towed, and the driver was exceeding the speed limit. And, the owner of the towed vehicle got the ticket because that’s the license plate that was most readily seen"

HB 1404 passed an Indiana state house committee in February.  The bill seemed poised to pass. However an alliance of liberal and libertarian delegates began to question the bill's provisions, and lawmakers pulled the plug on the bill.  According to the NWITimes :
A unique coalition of limited-government Republicans and liberty-loving Democrats united in opposition to Soliday's idea of authorizing the state or a local government to deploy cameras in road construction areas that would snap photos of speeding motorists 24 hours a day, even if no workers were present, and send tickets demanding fines of up to $1,000 for repeat "  and "State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who noted his agreement with Washburne 'is kind of an ACLU meets Tea Party moment,' said he doesn't want Indiana to become like many other states where speed cameras are loathed.  
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Rep. Mike Speedy (R-Indianapolis) during last week’s Roads and Transportation Committee hearing. “Once it starts in the construction work zones, that becomes a rationale to expand it and expand it, and then, where does it stop?”
"This kind of automated enforcement really turns people against their government," Pierce said. "I think it breeds contempt for government."
A letter the Maryland Drivers Alliiance sent to AAA's Greg Seiter in February about the bill went unanswered.  It's unclear whether AAA Hoosier will attempt to promote a similar bill again next year.

The Truth About Triple A
AAA describes itself as a motor club, and claims to advocate for motorists, sometimes publicly going on TV to advocate for ticketed motorists.  However AAA is one of the largest sellers of insurance in the US, collecting over $2billion in insurance premiums per year.  AAA has an intimate relations with the auto insurance industry: "The Auto Club Group" (AAA) is a member of the insurance industry group IIHS, and in the past a representative of AAA has even chaired the IIHS.

Some of AAA's other positions, which many motorists and AAA customers oppose, have included arguing in favor of a VMT (Vehicle Mileage Tax) in Idaho, and advocating an increase in the federal gas tax, and supporting an increase in the state gas tax in Virginia.  AAA Mid Atlantic's Lon Anderson took credit for getting statewide speed cameras passed in Maryland and for getting red light cameras reintroduced in Virginia.  Anderson also stated to the Gazette that AAA was trying to get speed cameras for Maryland years before we actually got them.

AAA Publication Promotes Nation Wide Use of Speed Cameras
A research paper published by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety asked that the federal government should "Encourage states and communities to use automated enforcement as appropriate".  The paper recommended that "All states should permit automated enforcement using speed cameras and should encourage and support communities in using automated enforcement in appropriate situations."   The paper literally promotes the idea of using less unpopular forms of automated enforcement to create a "slippery slope": "Jurisdictions where the public may not be ready to accept speed cameras may wish to use red light running cameras first". 

Only 14 states currently allow speed cameras, and photo enforcement has been rejected in public referendums in most cases where the issue has been brought to the ballot.

Dump Two Faced Triple A
AAA often claims to be on the side of motorists, as a way of getting cheap PR.  But in our opinion, their positions are inconsistent a members have little idea what they are really lobbying for, and motorists certainly cannot rely on them to speak for us.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance Recommends that all those who want to protect their legal rights dump their AAA membership and join another organization which consistently supports motorist rights.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Anti-Motorist Committee Kills Speed Camera Repeal, Reform Bills

The House Environment and Transportation Committee voted down four bills that would have reformed aspects of speed and red light camera programs, while approving a bill which would authorize a $500 photo-ticket for a third type of photo ticket.

Committee Voted Down Repeal of SHA Speed Cameras
The Environment and Transportation committee voted down a bill which would have ended the SHA's speed camera program, with a 17-2 Vote.  See Vote Count Here

The National Motorists Association (NMA) had supported the bill, noting in their testimony that over half of workzone accidents are actually caused by worker's own equipment.  The NMA also noted that "A 2012 legislative audit of the Maryland State Highway Administration’s speed camera program found that the state’s “SafeZones” program had failed to adequately test the equipment and that the state flouted its own law regarding a requirement that speed cameras be independently certified.  It’s clear that poor administration of the state’s various speed camera programs has led unfair treatment of countless motorists and represents a violation of the public trust."  The NMA is the only nationwide organization dedicated to protecting motorist rights.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance also supported the legislation, stating in written testimony:
We believe that violations of people's legal rights for the sake of revenue and expediency are intrinsic to the nature of automated enforcement.  The lack of oversight and lack of transparency on speed camera programs make abuses in this system inevitable. The legislature knows there have been abuses.  From the beginning, Maryland's speed camera program was born in fraud, deception, and shady deals.
With reference to the SHA's failure to independently calibrate their own equipment and follow their own procurement rules, confirmed by a 2012 SHA Audit,  we noted that "Some say the SHA's program is a “model” speed camera program.  We say yes, they are a model, and that's the problem.  Local governments followed the SHA's example and did the exact same thing."

We also noted that under the previous administration the SHA opposed any and all efforts to reform Maryland's speed camera law with respect to their own program.  "The word “accuracy” does not exist anywhere in the calibration requirements in Maryland's speed camera law.  Nor does state law require equipment to meet any nationally recognized standard.  This is what turned Maryland into a beta test site for buggy, unproven speed cameras.  NO you did NOT fix that gaping flaw in the law last year."

MaCo Takes Credit For Killing Speed Camera Audit Bill
A bill that would have required audits of speed camera programs, such as the audit which proved that Baltimore City's Program had a 10% rate of erroneous tickets, was voted down amid strong opposition from local governments.

The idea of requiring audits was strongly opposed by local governments such as Montgomery County, which are terrified that errors will be proven in their own programs if they are forced to accept independent oversight or review.

The Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo), a collective lobbying tool for county governments, opposed the audit bill, and MaCo's spokesperrson Les Knapp trumpeted their success in killing it on their "ConduitStreet" bog.  The Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo) lied in their testimony to the legislature regarding the audit bill, claiming that "The audit requirement would require a local government to take down it's speed cameras and ship them to a qualified laboratory to be tested" which would have shut cameras down for an extended period of time every four months.  In fact this testimony by MaCo's Les Knapp was completely false, since the bill contained no requirement that hardware be examined or shut down at all.

The other reason MaCo gave for opposing the bill, was that the legislature had rejected the bill in previous years, largely because MaCo and local government which profit from speed cameras had opposed it then as well.

YOUR county's representative on MaCo's legislative committee can be found here.  We note that ALL members of MaCo's legislative committee are culpable in MaCo's activities to limit the legal rights of motorists at public expense, either by their action or by their inaction.

Local Governments Opposes Even Trivial Protections Of Motorist Rights
MaCo, an opaque organization which is funded in large part by your tax dollars, also opposed legislation which would have required the "local designee" (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "ombudsman") to be approved after a public hearing.  MaCo's primary reason for opposing the legislation was "the General Assembly has already considered and rejected the notion of requiring a
local governing body’s approval of the ombudsman", a decision the General Assembly made largely because MaCo opposed the idea of any and all outside oversight of local speed camera programs.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance had written testimony in favor of the bill, noting that "the “local designee” role created by HB929 last year does not currently function as a practical means of addressing public concerns nor does it function as a meaningful “ombudsman” by any commonly held understanding of the term."  We pointed out that selected Local Designees are not independent or objective, since in some cases the heads of speed camera programs had been appointed as "ombudsman".

In fact the bill which created this role in 2014 was actually written by a secret "Speed Camera Reform Work Group", which met in private without notifying the public, taking minutes or agendas, and which included MaCo and the heads of large speed camera programs (particularly the heads of Montgomery County and Prince George's County's speed camera programs") but that opponents of speed cameras were not included or even informed that the work group existed.  The existance of the Speed Camera Reform Workgroup was confirmed by correspondence from MaCo and from the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program, but the Department of Legislative Services claims that they have no minutes, agendas, or records of public notice for the group's meetings.  Thus the entire effort of "reform" conducted in 2013 and 2014 was actually a demonstration of exactly what was wrong with speed camera programs in the first place: too much secrecy and no willingness to listen to the pubic.

"If the legislature is truly serious about reform, and serious about openness and transparency, then what you really need to do is start over and do it right.  Amend this bill to create a new “speed camera reform work group” which includes members appointed by the governor, and which is subject to the open meetings act.  No more secret speed camera meetings.  Engage with the public, and with the opponents of speed cameras – not just those who believe the system is fine -- and hear out the reasons why we have problems with the current system for real this time." -- we wrote in our testimony.

The Environment and Transportation committee ignored this plea and unceremoniously killed this bill as well.

Senate Passes Meaningless Placebo Version of Local Designee Bill
A version of the local designee bill did pass the senate, however only after it was amended to remove the requirement for hearings.   The requirement for a hearing was the only part of the bill which had any practical effect, and removing that provision entirely defeats the purpose of the bill -- providing a small element of outside oversight and transparency in order to ensure a local designee is in fact an independent "ombudsman" rather than someone with a vested interest in keeping a local government's problems secret.

It has yet to be seen whether the Environment and Transportation committee will vote down the amended bill as well (which they might as well do at this point), or approve it and promote a meaningless farce of a bill which actually does nothing.  The View of the Maryland Drivers Alliance is that this is essentially what the legislature did in 2014: write a bill designed to keep existing practices in place, which was written by the heads of speed camera programs, and pass it off as "reform" to a public which they believe to be too uneducated to know better.

Montgomery County, Rockville Had 1 Million Reasons to Oppose Right Turn Camera Bill
The Environment and Transportation Committee also killed a bill which would have ended the practice of ticketing vehicles for slow moving right turns from a right turn lane.

The bill was strongly opposed by Rockville and Montgomery County, each of which stood to loose approximately $1Million per year in photo ticket revenues if they could no longer issue tickets for vehicles making right turn on red where right turns are allowed.

Rockville, in particular, has only ten red light cameras, but saw their red light camera revenues more than double after deploying cameras optimized for ticketing vehicles which were making right turns without a 100% complete stop, or which in some cases vehicles which did make a full stop but slightly ahead of the white line.  Some cameras, positioned to capture images turning from a right turn lane, saw more than a factor of ten increase in tickets after the new ticketing practice was put into effect.  The fiscal policy notes for the bill also indicated that "Montgomery County advises that it may no longer allow red light camera enforcement in right lanes under the bill, which may result in a loss of roughly one third of citations and more than $1 million annually, unless offset by greater enforcement of other lanes in other locations."

Opponents of the bill asserted, without providing proof, that the measure would increase dangers to pedestrians.  A report from the NHTSA on right turn on red noted that right turn on red had an extremely small effect on safety. "Right-Turn-On-Red crashes represent a very small proportion of the total number of traffic crashes in the four states (0.05 percent). RTOR injury and fatal crashes represent a fraction of 1 percent of all fatal and injury crashes (0.06 percent). RTOR crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent)."  The report further noted that "less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted " while further noting that some of these accidents actually occurred when the light was not red for the turning vehicle at all and that the actual numbers are even lower than this would indicate.

This bill was supported by the National Motorists Association, which asserted in their written testimony "The question of whether or not rolling right turns present a safety hazard was answered in a study conducted in 2011 by Safer Streets L.A. (www.saferstreetsla.org), after analyzing nine years of crash data in Los Angeles. The study concluded that accidents attributed to such maneuvers accounted for only .08 percent of total accidents in the city, and the chance that a rolling right turn would result in a collision was .0003 percent. In addition, a separate review of US Department of Transportation statistics found that an average motorist could drive a billion miles -- the distance from Earth to Jupiter and back -- before being involved in an accident that resulted from a rolling right-hand turn (thenewspaper.com/news/26/2693.asp). The bottom line is that rolling right turns present little, if any, safety hazard."

Committee Approves $500 Photo Ticket
The Environment and Transportation Committee id allow one photo enforcement related bill to go through, a bill which would set a precedent for fines of up to $500 for automated enforcement tickets by raising the maximum fines for "school bus monitoring system" tickets from $250 to $500.  The bill's sponsors presented this as being necessary because there were too many people passing school buses.  Montgomery County have been issuing only about 5 tickets per camera per month in their first nine months their school bus cameras were in operation.  By comparison, the City of Rockville's red light cameras issued approximately 200 citations per camera per month at the end of 2013.  Given that the cameras are issuing only 1/40th as many tickets as a red light camera would, either the county or their vendor or both would be unable to turn a profit off of these these cameras given the current fines.  In general local governments will not continue photo enforcement programs which do not produce revenue over the long term.

The law regarding school bus monitoring systems contains fewer protections for the legal rights of defendants than speed cameras do.  The fines of up to $500 would be issued to the owners of vehicles, rather than the drivers, who would be forced to "admit guilt" in passing a school bus (since courts in Maryland have determined that paying a fine is an admission of guilt) if they were unable to identify the driver.  This is despite the fact that in some cases the driver may have been unknown, and despite the fact that under courtroom rules of evidence a person can in general only testify to facts they personally witnessed.

By comparison, when the now-chairman of the Environment and Transportation Committee Kumar Barve was arrested for drunk driving he received a "PBJ" (probation before judgement) and was required to pay a fine of only $200 for a type off violation which kills thousands of innocent motorists, pedestrians, and children every year.  DUI cases are handled by the much stricter standard of "proof beyond reasonable doubt", and the proof must show the person accused was personally responsible.  The court in such cases is not permitted to accept unauthenticated evidence against the accused, and the right to face a human accuser is protected.  On the other hand, photo tickets of the sort which Barve's committee approved are judged by the standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" and a person can literally be found guilty even if there is evidence proving they were not present at the time of the offense.  The state can present evidence against the accused, and there is no provision in the statute for the defendant to face the operator of the device or any specific human accuser,

The burden of proof spelled out in the current law regarding school bus monitoring systems is so low that it does not actually require the device to collect evidence which proves the vehicle actually passed a bus.  In fact the word "passing" does not even appear in the statute which authorizes school bus monitoring cameras.  For example, it is technically illegal in Maryland, under the statute the cameras enforce, to come to a full stop closer than 20 feet from a school bus.  Red light cameras were re-purposed to ticket for slow moving right turns after they had been in use for several years, and the legislature merely needed to do nothing in order for that practice to continue expanding.  While the bill sponsors repeatedly refer to it as being about passing school buses, there is absolutely nothing in the bill which prevents the cameras from being re-purposed in the future to ticket for such technical violations other than actually passing a school bus, including those of a sort which literally never cause traffic fatalities.  Local governments will now have a $500 per ticket incentive to begin doing exactly that.

Of course the public has gotten the assurance from politicians these cameras won't be used in this way (someone did promise you that didn't they?), so obviously there is nothing to worry about.  Because if you can't trust politicians who can you trust?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

District Court Changes Citation Language

In response to citizen complaints, the District Court has directed local governments make changes to speed camera citation language pertaining to the situation when one was not the driver.  The new Uniform Citation language also requires the court to state the contact information for the program's "local designee".

"In response to citizen complaints, I have revised these citations to ensure our uniform citations are fully compliant with the letter and intent of the law."  wrote chief judge John P. Morrissey.  "The revisions made reflect those efforts and our ongoing commitment to provide clear, accurate, and understandable information."

Angelita Williams, the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the Administrative Office of the Courts, stated in an email that the letter had been sent out to jurisdictions and vendors late last year.  "The Speed monitoring citation, Rev. 12/2104*, has the revised language for the transfer of liability and a new paragraph on the back notice for contact information for the “local designee” described in the letter."

The letter from the court directed the use of a new template "as soon as possible" and stated that it was required for use by January 2015.  That new template removed the words "transfer of liability" and replaced them with the words "SPEED CAMERA--NOT THE DRIVER".

The new language regarding when a motorist isn't the driver replaces language which stated that one was required to identify who was driving.  Maryland's speed camera statute contains no such requirement, and in fact says that it is a defense if one was not driving, if one follows specific steps prior to the court hearing to notify the court in writing.

We previously reported that in December 2013 the Circuit Court ruled that it was a defense if one was not the driver.  The case in question was State of Maryland vs Ely, which was argued in circuit court "pro se" by a Member of the Maryland Drivers Alliance who had received a Montgomery County speed camera citation when he was not driving.  In his defense, Ely noted that state law had no requirement for a ticket recipient to identify who was driver, only to provide "corroborating evidence" to the court in advance that one was not driving..

Subsequently, district court judges grudgingly accepted this defense in some district court cases.  The language on the backs of citations implied that one needed to "transfer" liability, and made no mention that there was an option to not name the driver.

However implementing the procedure was.  In order to implement the defense under Maryland Law, one needs to follow very specific steps to notify the court in advance, sending a sworn statement certified mail return receipt.  One motorist reported to the Maryland Drivers Alliance that he had attempted to implement the defense, but the judge in that case refused to accept it because the court didn't have a copy of the letter in their file, even though the motorist had a certified mail receipt.

The chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance asked the Chief Judge of the Court to reconsider speed monitoring system citation language because it provided no instructions on how to implement the defense listed under the statute, and instead referred only to the transfer option.  In that complaint to the court, we laid out the problems with the prior citation language:
In the case of "Baker vs Montgomery County" it was asserted that paying a speed monitoring citation is an “admission of speeding” (to use the words of the Court of Appeals).  This implies it is more than merely an admission of "liability" in the sense of an acknowledgment that one is the registered owner, but rather an acknowledgment that one did commit the violation.  Requiring a person to prove someone else guilty in order to avoid "admitting guilt" would violate the core principal of our justice system by decisively shifting the burden of proof to the accused.[...] 
Contesting a citation in district court under 21-809(f)(1)(ii) requires a motorist to take a very specific action within a specific amount of time.  It is not merely a question of requesting a hearing.  You need to mail the court a sworn statement and exculpatory evidence in advance, and you must do so in a very specific way.   If a person assumes that “Transfer of Liability” is an accurate and complete interpretation of the statute because it has been presented that way, but they are unable to identify the driver, then they lose the opportunity to contest the citation under 21-809(f)(1)(ii).[...] 
There is a legitimate legal reason why this would be.  A person cannot testify to facts which they do not have first hand knowledge of, let alone be compelled to do so, because “hearsay” is not permitted under Maryland rules.  A defendant who wishes to give hearsay evidence in their own defense in court would likely be told by the judge that they may not. 
A requirement to incriminate another person in order to exonerate oneself may in some cases also infringe on legally recognized privileges against being compelled to provide testimony.  This would notably include "spousal privilege", which is considered important enough that civil liberties organizations have gone to court in the past to defend it.   If the interest in prosecuting most criminal violations does not justify an exception to spousal privilege, then prosecuting traffic citations cannot present enough public interest to justify an exception to a well established legal privilege. 
[...]If approval for the current Uniform Citation format was given, it must have been based on input from agencies which issue the tickets without hearing arguments or input from anyone more objective.  Advocates for motorists had no means to present the District Court with counter arguments or concerns until now. 
A number of other motorists wrote to the Chief Judge as well, but the court initially responded to some of those individuals in October of 2014 that the court would not change the citation language.  The court's letter in November appears to represent a shift in that position.

The new template also adds contact information for an agency's "local designee" where an individual can theoretically send a complaint or concern.  Many local governments had either buried the contact information for this individual deep in their websites where the information would be unlikely to be found, or did not publish such contact information at all.  Such a position would be rendered meaningless if the public had no way of knowing how to send a complaint and this would have permitted an agency to claim they had received no complaints about their program at all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

College Park Tickets Wrong Car

A Westminster resident received a speed camera ticket from College Park without visting the city.

The ticket, issued in February, showed a picture of a white SUV, but was issued to the owner of a Black Camery instead.  Several of the characters on the image of the license plate were not clear on the citation.

The recipient contacted the Maryland Drivers Alliance who directed them to the correct location to request the city review the ticket.  When the motorist did not receive confirmation until 4 days before the due date to request a hearing, the motorist contacted the city again.  After the city was queried about the citation by both the Maryland Drivers Alliance and a local radio reporter, the city admitted the ticket was in error, but attempted to place the blamed on the Motor vehicle Administration rather than the fact the plate was misread:
"Our speed camera citation processing contractor has now been able to review your citation and MD MVA records for the vehicle photographed and your vehicle. Your citation has been dismissed due to it being issued in error based upon the information originally provided by MVA to our contractor, and the error being confirmed by MVA. All  action related to this citation has been dismissed. "

Such errors are not uncommon in some jurisdictions, but are rarely publicly reported.

College Park budgeted to bring in $1,600,000 in speed camera fines in FY2015 (an increase from FY14), approximately 40% of which goes to their contractor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Powerful Transportation Committee Chaired by State Delegate With Prior Drunk Driving Arrest

One of the most powerful legislative committees in the General Assembly, and the one which has overwhelming control over matters pertaining to transportation, motorist, and traffic safety issues, is currently chaired by a State Delegate who previously plead guilty to a drunk driving offense.

In November 2014, House Speaker Busch selected Delegate Kumar Barve (D, Montgomery County) to chair the Environment and Transportation Committee.

In July 2008, Delegate Barve plead guilty to a DUI charge and was given "probation before judgement".   This ruling permitted Barve to avoid a guilty verdict and all but $200 of the $1000 fine was suspended.

The arrest was not merely a "youthful indiscretion".  At the time of the DUI incident, Barve held the powerful position as House Majority leader.  Barve will now chair the Environment and Transportation Committee.  All legislation in the House of Delegates having to do with transportation, including all bills regarding traffic laws and enforcement thereof, will first need to pass through Barve's committee.

This chairmanship position is insufficient for Barve's ambitions, who recently announced his intention to run for Congress in Maryland's 8th district,

House Speaker Busch touted Barve's credentials for the chairmanship of the House's primary committee on transportation issues in his press release regarding the appointment, stating that "Delegate Barve has demonstrated time and time again his command of complex issues and he is a natural choice of someone to guide State environment and transportation policy."

But we can't help but wonder about that.  There is an obvious question of why someone with a prior DUI arrest is the ideal person to preside over a committee which helps decide the state's traffic safety laws.  Certainly most members of the House of Delegates have never been arrested for DUI, and certainly the writer of this piece has never driven while drunk even one time in his life.  It does not seem like it should have been hard to find another qualified delegate whose credentials included never having been caught driving drunk.

One might also wonder if a politician in that position might feel compelled to act against the interests of Motorists any time the word "safety" is brought up, with no consideration for how this impacts people's legal rights, or whether the safety claim is valid, or whether a particular piece of legislation actually addresses said safety issue in an appropriate manner.  Would a politician in that position be pressured to prove their "safety credentials" even when that might mean hypocritically holding other motorists accountable for that lawmaker's prior actions?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bill Would End SHA's Speed Camera Program

A bill which would end the SHA's speed camera program has been submitted to the General Assembly and is set for a hearing on March 5.

House Bill 1038 would repeal article 21-810, which authorizes the state to use speed cameras on highway work zones "regardless of whether workers are present".  The bill sponsors are Delegates Haven Shoemaker, John Cluster, Glen Glass, Jay Jalisi, Trent Kittleman, Robert Long, Tony McConkey, Warren Miller, and Matthew Morgan.

HB 1038 would have no effect on local speed camera programs, such as those in Montgomery County and Prince George's County on local roads, since those cameras are authorized under a different statute.

In prior years, legislation repealing both state and local speed cameras failed.  The state legislature has in the past voted against legislation and amendments which would have ended the use of workzone speed cameras in workzones without actual workers.

In 2011, our website was first to report that the SHA failed to have speed cameras certified by an independently calibrated laboratory for the first nine months they were in operation, relying instead on the manufacturer's non-independent certification.  The SHA only had the equipment calibrated after we reported this.  Citations issued during that period were not refunded.

The SHA defended this practice by claiming that the requirement that equipment be certified annually doesn't mean this testing must be done until the equipment has been used for a full 12 months.  Other local governments such as Hagerstown, Greenbelt, and Laurel followed the SHA's lead that it was OK to bend calibration requirements in this exact same way.

A 2012 audit of the SHA's program confirmed this took place.  In addition, the audit revealed that the SHA waived its own requirements for testing and calibration equipment. The Audit stated:
"At the time of the contract award and as of April 2012, the specific speed detection equipment (scanning LIDAR, a laser system) listed in the contractor’s proposal, and ultimately used, was not reported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) as conforming to its guidelines, as required by the RFP. The contract required that all equipment conform with IACP’s speed detection equipment standards to provide assurance of its calibration and functionality. "
The IACP maintains a "Conforming Products List" certifying over 80 different radar devices and over 30 lidar devices, including speed cameras and devices for "automatic" enforcement, but which to this day does not include the specific device chosen by the SHA.
The audit also stated:
"Prior to awarding the contract, SHA used a consulting firm to conduct a system accuracy test of the contractor’s proposed equipment in an active highway work zone. However, the consulting firm deviated from SHA’s testing instructions and therefore, the basis for the conclusion that the equipment met performance requirements is questionable. "

A former SHA employee and whistleblower, Gene Simmers, testified on previous legislation that he had been instructed to give preferential treatment to a specific vendor.  ""My office was instructed, and I was a supervisor, I was instructed 'not to review not to analyze or test the products from the ACS company'.  In other words, to give them the job."

"There is incontrovertible proof, with the office of legislative audits and the documents that I have produced, that this program was a sham to begin with.  The product does not work properly.  It wasn't tested properly.  It wasn't calibrated properly for 9 months.  And millions of dollars were taken from the citizens of Maryland without a calibration of the system for 9 months.  That's not my opinion that's the office of legislative audits."

The SHA currently uses the same vendor as Baltimore City did prior to 2012, Xerox (formerly ACS State and Local Solutions).  In December 2012 Xerox was forced to admit that their speed cameras in Baltimore City had systematically issued tickets based on false speed readings, and later audits revealed that these erroneous readings were even more widespread than originally known.

The Baltimore audit examined the videos and time stamped images to determine that recorded speed readings were erroneous.  However citations issued by the SHA's program round time stamps off to the second and withhold the real time intervals between images from accused defendants, and no videos exist.  Thus an audit of the SHA's program to identify similar speed measurement errors is not even possible, and defendants have no time stamped evidence they can use to dispute recorded speeds.  The SHA under the previous administration opposed all proposed requirements for stricter testing standards or to include accurate time stamps so that speeds could be verified after the fact, ensuring that the recorded speed on citations would be the ONLY evidence of speed available.

The Federal Highway Administration(FHWA) has stated that accidents occurring in work zones account for 1.6% of all traffic crashes.  Regarding accidents that involve worker fatalities, the FWHA has stated that "More than half of these fatalities were workers struck by construction vehicles."  Between 2002 and 2010, work zone fatalities have decreased by 51% nation wide, despite the fact that only a few states use speed cameras statewide in work zones.

In 2005 the Maryland SHA examined one alternate form of traffic speed control, speed display trailers, and found that "The speed display trailer is an effective speed reduction measure in work zones." With mean speeds reduced by 2-7 mph..  The study noted that "Drivers have shown positive attitudes toward the speed monitoring display."  and that "The speed display trailer is a cost-effective speed control measure."  Prior to the introduction of speed cameras, the Maryland SHA examined other types of speed control as well and found these could also increase voluntary compliance with speed limits.  However, since the introduction of profitable work zone speed cameras on interstate highways, supporters of camera rarely if ever discuss the fact that traffic engineering alternatives to automated enforcement exist.

The bill will need to survive the "Environment and Transportation Committee", whose leadership is extremely hostile towards motorists, in order to move on to the General Assembly.  A hearing before the committee is scheduled for March 5 at 1pm.  The members of the committee are:
Kumar Barve, Chairman: kumar.barve@house.state.md.us
dana.stein@house.state.md.us (vice chair)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bill Would End Photo-Ticketing For Right Turns

A bill has been introduced into the House which would would end the use of red light cameras to issue tickets to vehicles making right turns where right turn are permitted.

House Bill 410, sponsored by Delegates Neil Parrott, Jason Buckel, Kevin Hornberger, Nicholaus Kipke, Trent Kittleman, Ric Metzgar, and Haven Shoemaker, would change Maryland's red light camera statute to state : "THIS SECTION DOES NOT APPLY TO A VIOLATION IN WHICH A MOTOR VEHICLE MAKES A RIGHT TURN AT AN INTERSECTION MONITORED BY A TRAFFIC CONTROL SIGNAL MONITORING SYSTEM"

The bill was prompted by outcries from motorists who received red light camera tickets while making slow moving right turns at intersections where right turn on red is not prohibited.  When the City of Rockville began ticketing for right turns en-mass in 2012, some camera locations issued more than ten times as many camera tickets as they had prior to the new ticketing practices going into effect.   The new right-turn-optimized cameras were activated without significant prior notification to the public and without updating the signage at the locations to note that tickets would be issued for right turns.  One camera located at WB Gude drive at Gaither Road which had previously been issuing 36-83 tickets per month the year prior to the upgrade, issued 1813 tickets in a single month to motorist surprised by the City's new practice.  Many of the tickets were issued to motorists in dedicated right turn lanes. 

Right Turn Cameras Produced Ticket Revenue Boom
We reported in October of 2014 that despite assertions to the press by Rockville City officials that the number of red light camera tickets had "dropped", in fact Rockville still issued more than twice as many red light camera tickets in 2013 than 2011 (the last full year before cameras optimized for ticketing right turns were installed). While the city asserted in response to public information requests that they did not keep any statistics about what number of tickets were issued for right turns, this would indicate that the majority of RLC tickets issued by Rockville may actually be for right turns rather than "straight through" violations.  Rockville's ticketing practices permit issuing RLC tickets motorists who are traveling as slow as 14mph a short distance before reaching the intersection, and begin issuing tickets only 0.1second (literally a blink of an eye) after the light changed red. 

Maryland law requires motorists to make a full stop "behind a clearly marked stop line" before proceeding to make a right turn on red.  However Maryland's current red light camera law  
makes no mention of "right turns" at all nor do the "fiscal policy notes" for Maryland's original red light camera law.  Many jurisdictions have chosen to interpret the state's RLC law to include ticketing for right turns, as well as in some cases issuing ticket to vehicles which did stop at a red light but partially ahead of the white line.   

Ticketed Vehicles Include Those Which Make Full Stops
In one case, a motorist complained about being forced to pay a fine for a Rockville RLC ticket where the recorded video showed their vehicle DID fully stop before making a right turn, but had pulled slightly ahead of the white line in order to see around a piled up snowbank.  The City of Rockville continues to defend such ticketing practices as legal.

Montgomery County's Public Relations Lie
The Montgomery County government also installed the same model of new red light cameras.  Montgomery County does sometimes issue right turn tickets, but uses somewhat different standards for citation review than the City of Rockville.

When Montgomery County officials were asked why newly installed red light cameras were "flashing" motorists who were not making right turns, the officials lied to the press by stating these were "warning flashes".  In fact there is NO standard traffic signal whatsoever for issuing "warning flashes" to motorists approaching.  When a red light cameras flashes they are taking pictures, so the county and their vendor can look for "technical violations".  However stating this directly does not fit local governments' narrative that "if you don't want your picture taken don't run a red light" and lying to the Public for PR reasons would appear to be an A-OK public policy in Montgomery County.

NHTSA Report Disputes That Right Turn On Red Is A Major Cause of Accidents
A 1995 study on Right Turn on Red issued by the NHTSA to Congress found that right turn on red, under all conditions combined, was not a major cause of accidents.   The report noted that  "Right-Turn-On-Red crashes represent a very small proportion of the total number of traffic crashes in the four states (0.05 percent). RTOR injury and fatal crashes represent a fraction of 1 percent of all fatal and injury crashes (0.06 percent). RTOR crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent)."  The report further noted that " Thus, less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted " while further noting that some of these accidents actually occurred when the light was not red for the turning vehicle at all and that the actual numbers are even lower than this would indicate.

Bill Must Pass Motorist-Hostile Committee

A hearing for the bill is scheduled for February 26 before the Environmental and Transportation Committee.  The members of this committee are:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Delegates Re-Introduce Speed Camera Audit Bill

Legislation has been submitted which would require quarterly audits of all local speed camera programs.

The bill, HB0271, states that

The bill was submitted by Delegates Warren Miller, Christopher Adams, Stephen Arentz,
Susan Aumann, Jason Buckel , John Cluster , Mark Fisher , Kevin Hornberger ,
Seth Howard , Rick Impallaria , Nicholaus Kipke , Trent Kittleman , Robert Long
Susan McComas , Tony McConkey , Mike McKay , Ric Metzgar, Nathaniel Oaks, Neil Parrott,
Sid Saab, Meagan Simonaire, Kathy Szeliga, and Chris West.  It was previously introduced last year as House Bill 1288.

The bill was prompted in part because Baltimore City's speed camera program was shown to have
experienced huge numbers of erroneous speed camera tickets, and the City shut down their program after the erroneous ticket became publicly known.  The city conducted a "secret" audit of their program, which they initially attempted to conceal from the press.  That audit showed that many cameras had issued double-digit percentages of ticket that were in error.  A second audit of the program was conducted --- the city initially attempted to keep that audit secret as well --- which confirmed substantial numbers of tickets had been issued based on incorrect speed readings.  These matters were widely reported by the local press, including the Baltimore Sun.  Some documented incidents included stationary vehicles getting speeding tickets.  The audits prompted a separate investigation by the city inspector general which additionally alleged improper conduct by a city official involved in the program.

An audit of the SHA's program also disclosed several significant issued.  The SHA audit criticized the agency for failing to have their speed cameras independently certified for the first nine months they were in use (in fact it was only after this website disclosed that fact that the testing was actually done).  The audit also revealed that the SHA had failed to follow their own standards for testing equipment, and that a requirement that equipment approved by the IACP be used had been dropped during the procurement process --- a change which gave contractor Xerox an advantage in the bidding.

The bill failed to gain traction last year because under the O'Malley administration, no state agency was willing to oversee such audits.  Local governments which profit from speed cameras also opposed having outside oversight of any kind, apparently since they were terrified that audits might reveal errors in their own programs.

Erroneous speed readings have been alleged in other jurisdictions.  Last year a group of school teachers in Wicomico County complained that a camera near their school had issued erroneous tickets.  A speed camera contract between the Town of Cheverly and Optotraffic was ended amid revelations that cameras had recorded a bike going 38 mph and an “invisible vehicle” travelling 76 mph.   The Maryland Drivers Alliance attempted for years to obtain documents verifying that the Town of Brentwood had issued erroneous tickets, and when the town finally disclosed documents under pressure of a lawsuit evidence of many erroneous citations were revealed.

Prior to the Baltimore City debacle, speed camera programs would generally recite to the public a mantra of "If you don't speed you won't get a ticket".

Because such audits would be admitted as evidence in speed camera hearings, defendants in a speed camera case would be able to reference the contents of such an audit in their defense.  Currently, were a motorist to attempt to enter a document such as the Baltimore City audits into evidence to demonstrate that cameras are capable of error, the documents would likely be dismissed as "hearsay" unless the defendant were first able to go through the complicated process of authenticating the document under Maryland Rules.  This is despite the fact that local governments are permitted to admit documents they claim show the documents were tested without authentication, and they are accepted as proof of the accuracy of equipment by the courts, without a requirement that the agency provide an expert witness to confirm the validity of the testing method.  ( The cameras in Baltimore City which issued erroneous tickets did pass their calibration tests, even on the very day the device issued an erroneous tickets to a stationary car, which was the result of what the vendor described as "radar effects" caused by external phenomenon, not incorrect calibration. )

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Governor Hogan Calls For Gas Tax Cuts, More Road Funding in State of the State

Recently sworn in Governor Larry Hogan addressed the issue of transportation funding in his State of the State address today.  Excerpt follows
Repealing Automatic Gas Tax Increases 
After siphoning a billion dollars from the Transportation Trust Fund, a decision was made to enact the largest gas tax increase in state history. This legislation also included language that would automatically increase taxes every single year without it ever having a coming up for a vote.
Marylanders deserve the transparency to know how their elected leaders vote every time the state takes a bigger share of their hard-earned dollars. This is a regressive tax that hurts struggling Maryland families and our most vulnerable, and which adds to the cost of almost everything.
These automatic tax increases should be repealed, and we will submit legislation to do so.
Improving Transportation
Over the last several years, monies for local road improvements have been slashed by up to 96 percent. 
Our administration is committed to restoring the money that was taken from the transportation trust fund, and to making sure that it never happens again. 
Today I am pleased to announce a supplemental to our FY2016 budget that will increase Highway User Revenues by $25 million and give counties and municipalities the most money for road improvements that they have received since FY 2009.
Further, we are committed to increasing the local share of Highway User Revenues from 10% today to its original high point of 30% over the next 8 years. .

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Leggett's Independent Transit Authority Proposal (MC 24-15) Pommeled by Grass Roots Opposition -(Updated)

( This posting has been updated to reflect recent developments)
Opponents of a bill which would increase property tax bills to fund a new Independent Transit Authority (ITA) in Montgomery County are celebrating as the county may be pulling back from the plan after outraged citizens rallied against the bill and the manner in which it was introduced.

The bill (MC 24-15) would have authorized a "special taxing district", covering the entire county, and authorized a new mass transit tax.  The newly created ITA would have had jurisdiction over all mass transit programs planned by the county, including proposed Bus Rapid Transit and Corridor City Transit Way plans.

The members of the ITA's board would have been selected by the county executive and would have had sweeping powers.  One of the most criticized points was that the agency would be explicitly exempt from the county charter:  "PROVISIONS OF THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY CHARTER DO NOT APPLY TO THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY UNLESS THE GOVERNING BODY OF MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXPRESSLY PROVIDES BY LAW THAT A CHARTER PROVISION APPLIES TO THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY" reads the bill.   A letter from the county council made clear that "The central reason for an ITA is as a means to raise more funding by taking the Mass Transit Tax out from under the property tax cap in the Charter, allowing that tax to be raised significantly to support revenue bonds issued by the authority. "

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Legislature Failed In Timely Completion Of Open Records Study

We reported last year how the state legislature gutted a bill to reform the Maryland Public Information Act by replacing the proposal to create a state Public Information Act Compliance Board with a mere promise to complete a study by January 1, 2015 including receiving public input.  However January 1 came and went, and the study was never conducted.

The Maryland Public Information Act is the state's equivalent of the federal FOIA, and theoretically provides member of the public broad access to a wide variety of public records.  However Maryland nevertheless rates very low in transparency by some measures.  If a request is not handled by a local or state government agency in a timely manner, is denied, an excessive fee demanded, or the agency is just generally unresponsive in producing records, a requester must be prepared to spend months or even years disputing the matter in Court.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance has encountered exactly such difficulties obtaining information from some local governments, and has been forced to take two such disputes to court and in both cases substantially prevailed... but  only after enough time had elapsed to render many documents obsolete for the original purpose of the requests.

In the case of the other portion of Maryland's sunshine laws, the Open Meetings Act, Maryland has an Open Meetings Compliance board which permits a complaint to be brought for adjudication in a far more timely and less expensive manner.  This system works remarkably well.  The bill (HB 658) originally would have created a similar board for the Maryland Public Information Act which could adjudicate public records disputes in a timely manner, allowing disputes to be resolved far more quickly and saving both local governments and sequesters the cost of a protracted legal dispute.

The bill had strong support from the press and various organizations supporting transparency, none in the legislature were willing to actually speak against the bill openly, and the cost of the board had been deemed insignificant in the fiscal policy notes of the bill.  Despite this, the legislature instead deleted the entire content of the bill and replaced it with a mandate that the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government  "shall conduct a study on how to improve the administrative process for resolving appeals under the Maryland Public Information Act" including input from the OAG, the press organization, local governments, and "other parties that express interest in participating in the study".  The modified bill required that "On or before January 1, 2015, the Joint Committee shall report its findings and any recommended legislation to the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee and the House Health and Government Operations Committee."

The Chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance sought to provide this study with information gleaned from the two MPIA appeals we were forced to file.  However we soon learned from the committee staff that the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government was dissolved by a different act of the legislature last year, and was replaced by a new committee which only recently began to be reconstituted.  Thus as of January 27, 2015, no study had taken place, and no hearings had been held to collect input from "other parties".

One is left wondering the legislature not only succeeded in dodging the issue of public records reform last year -- without the need to vote against it --- but also may have set themselves up to be able to claim that they cannot proceed with public records reform this year either since the required study has not yet been done.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

DC Photo Enforcement Revenues Decline Sharply Due to Broken Cameras

DC initially claimed that a sharp decline in speed camera was due to the cameras being effective at stopping speeding.  In reality, the revenue decline was largely because the cameras were broken.   From the Washington Post:
D.C. police acknowledged this week that a sharp decline in revenue from the city’s network of traffic enforcement cameras was due in part to problems maintaining some of the equipment — undermining earlier claims that the drop was mainly due to motorists doing a better job obeying the law.
Assistant Chief Lamar D. Greene, who oversees the camera program, said in a statement that severe weather last year contributed to the maintenance issues.
“During periods of extreme cold and snow last winter, there were instances when we could not change the batteries because they were not accessible, or the temperature affected the charge,” he said. “We have taken additional steps to enhance internal temperature controls since last winter, alleviating this problem.”
The police department responded after D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) blamed the maintenance problems for a $38 million reduction in camera revenue at a budget briefing Monday morning. Mendelson said the issues arose after the police department assumed direct responsibility for the operations of the cameras.

Montgomery County Delegates Seek to Raise Property Tax Bills, Circumvent County Charter, to Fund Transit Programs

Montgomery County Delegation Chair Shane Robinson and Vice Chair Kirill Reznik
At the request of the county government and County Executive Ike Leggett, the Montgomery County Delegation to the General Assembly is seeking authority to create a new Independent Transit Authority (ITA) to run all of the county's mass transit programs, and to create a special taxing district", covering the entire county, to fund it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Long Delayed Brentwood Documents Reveal Erroneous Speed Camera Tickets

After years of attempting to obtain documents under the Maryland Public Information Act(MPIA), the Town of Brentwood had turned over documents pertaining to errors by their speed camera program.  The long delayed documents reveal evidence of multiple complaints by motorists and obvious erroneous citations.

Years of Delays Accessing Public Records
After receiving reports of erroneous citations in 2010, the chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance filed a public information act request with the Town of Brentwood in October 2010 (over four years ago) which the town received via certified mail on October 18, 2010.  The town sent no reply within the 30 day time limit permitted under Maryland's transparency law.  After several attempts to obtain a response from the two failed, we filed a second request for additional documents.  The municipality received that second request via certified mail on December 5, 2011, and again did not respond within the 30 day time limit under the MPIA.

The MPIA is Maryland's equivalent of the FOIA which subjects most types of records to public inspection.  Local governments are required by law to respond to MPIA requests within 30 days and are permitted to withhold records only under a limited number of exemptions.  There is no provision of state law which permits a local government to ignore an MPIA request from anyone.

After multiple additional attempts to obtain the requested documents were unsuccessful, we filed for Judicial Review in Circuit Court, which is the legal recourse permitted under the MPIA.  The attorney for the town provided a small amount of correspondence dated after May 2013.

Brentwood claimed that they could not produce correspondence from the time period of the original requests, because they had lost the passwords to all relevant email accounts that they had used for the requested correspondence.  One of the town asserted they had lost was a Hotmail account.  As of 2014, this address was still listed on the town website and as of 1/20/2014 this email address was still listed on Brentwood's contact address on the msa.maryland.gov website (a state directory of local governments).

In May of 2014, the town agreed in court to work with their contractor (Optotraffic) to retrieve correspondence which still existed, and the case was kept open for an additional 120 days to oversee this.  However at the end of the 120 day period the additional documents had still not been turned over and town's attorney had ceased responding to communications with us, and the we were forced to request an additional hearing date.  A week before the new hearing in January 2015, and more than four years after the initial request, an additional 42 pages of correspondence discussing speed camera errors from around 2011 was finally produced.

A Pattern of Errors?
We already knew that errors were occurring in the recent past since the documents produced in 2013 showed several cases where voided because the had been issued to the wrong vehicle.  In addition, a citation which had been issued was voided because of a false speed reading".  The new (or rather very old) documents just obtained in January 2015 showed that errors did not begin in 2013.

Among the issues prompting the initial requests had been a news report that buses had received erroneous tickets from Brentwood.  One of the documents did reference metro buses:  "Hi Angie.  This is another metro bus ticket I spoke with the Chief and he agreed to dismiss it!"

One of the documents disclosed this month revealed that in July of 2010 then Police Chief David Risik  complained to Optotraffic about the number of Errors they had been seeing:
Documents in both the January 2015 and October 2014 disclosure showed that tickets issued to incorrect vehicles were in fact a relatively routine occurrence.

Some motorists also alleged that speed readings were in error, however it is unclear from the documents whether these cases were disputed in court.

Some disclosed emails dated from 2011 showed that some individuals from the town were apparently using personal email accounts to conduct official business regarding the speed camera program.  Some correspondence between the town's staff and Optotraffic were being conducted from a "UMD.EDU" address.

Unfortunately, we will never know what information responsive to our requests might have lost because the town did not respond in a timely manner.  Furthermore, the long delay in obtaining these records meant that the Maryland Drivers Alliance did not have the benefit of this data when speed camera reform legislation was debated in previous years and some members of the legislature favoring the weak smoke and mirrors reform legislation they ended up passing were asserting that speed camera errors were exclusively a Baltimore City phenomenon.

Excerpts from Documents Produced in January 2014 (4 years after first request)

Excerpts from documents disclosed in October 2013 ( 3 years after initial request)