Monday, February 7, 2011

Speed Camera Contractor Linked To Baltimore County "Astroturf" Group

One Big Happy Family
A lobbying firm hired by Baltimore County's speed camera contractor has been linked to the creation of a website supporting the expansion of speed cameras in Baltimore County according to an article in  Web page and Facebook group 'Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools' was created in January supporting the proposed Baltimore County legislation which would expand the county's current program of 15 camera sites to an unlimited number of sites.  The site was supposedly created by Sarah Dennis, a Baltimore County school teacher.  However it was revealed that the firm Kearney O'Doherty (KO) Public Affairs, the politically connected strategy firm hired by ACS State and Local Solutions, helped the group create their webpage '' and drive 'likes' to their Facebook group.

According to the article "Damian O’Doherty, a KO Public Affairs partner and former county government official, told Patch in December that his political strategy firm has been working with ACS and a coalition of “educators, parents and elected officials to bring (speed cameras) to Maryland."  When asked the firm did not respond to requests for details about its efforts to support the Baltimore County group.

Dennis told Patch that her neighbor, Howard Libit, set up the website.  Libit is chief operating officer of Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs.  The web page contains a button which allows users to send emails to Baltimore County Council Members.  O'Doherty is listed as one of the 'like's on the Facebook group, but there is no other disclosure of the firm's involvement in the creation of the web page.

In addition, many area residents have been receiving emails directing them to the web page.  Kevin Dunne, a resident of WestTowson, told Patch that he received a Jan 21 email message seeking support for speed cameras and encourages them to use the web page's email link.  Dunne said he never requested to be on the email list.  Another area resident, who also opposes speed cameras, had emailed on Jan 29 to make a similar complaint about receiving an email from the group.

The email was addressed from ''.  Sarah Dennis stated to Patch that she had given Libit access to the group's Facebook account, which is configured to send emails from that address, in order to 'help get the word out'.  Dennis claimed she did not send the email to Dunne and was never given an email distribution list to use, and could not say if Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs had developed one.

The practice of corporate interests creating artificial "grass roots" organizations to give the impression of public support is not unique and is commonly referred to a "Astroturfing".

ACS is the contractor for Baltimore County's speed camera program.  Under the current arrangement ACS was paid $949,582 of the $1.16million of the fines collected so far.  ACS has a history of aggressive lobbying tactics, including spending hundreds of thousands on lobbyists and campaign contributions prior to the passage of statewide speed cameras, buying steak dinners for state lawmakers, and running a massive PR and media campaign in Montgomery County documented in that county's speed camera contract with ACS.  A poll was released in 2010 which claimed overwhelming public support for speed cameras in Maryland.  That poll was in fact conducted by ACS's marketing firm, Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs.

The County already voted to renew its existing contract with ACS without a bid.  The Baltimore County Council is preparing to vote to increase the current 15 sites to an unlimited number at their February 7th meeting.  The county recently released a report which showed that there had been no reduction in accidents at their existing speed camera sites, running

You can contact the council members using their contact information on the county web site or click this link to open an email window.

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UPDATE 02/11/2010: On 2/7/2010 the Baltimore County Council voted 5-2 to lift the cap on the number of speed cameras in the county.  The approved legislation will permit an unlimited number of new camera sites, either fixed or mobile, to be deployed without additional public discussion  or legislative approval.    Council Members Todd Huff and David Marks voted against the bill.  Council members Quirk, Almond, Oliver, Becins, and Olszewski all voted in favor of the bill. 

The original bill included language which would have required individual council members to be notified before new speed camera sites were added in their own district and to veto such sites.  However council member Almond introduced an amendment which removed that restriction as well, thus removing the possibility of reopening public debate if a site is selected which some believe is inappropriate.