Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Let the People Decide

Maryland's legislative session is beginning and many legislators are batting around ideas for speed camera related legislation, many of which are being drawn up to address complaints raised after Baltimore City's former speed camera contractor Xerox Corp was forced to admit that some of their cameras were routinely issuing citations with erroneous speed readings, including trucks cited for traveling twice their actual speed and a speeding ticket issued to a car that was not even moving.
For a change, the ideas being proposed are actually good ones.  Delegate Glenn Glass, a long time critic of the cameras, has said he wants to sponsor changes to the law to fix the problems in Baltimore.  Delegate John Cardin has proposed fining speed camera contractors $1000 for each erroneous citations and require citations to contain accurate enough timestamps to verify speed.

But in the end, would these changes actually matter?  Even if they make some minor tweaks to the law, we suspect speed camera programs might simply ignore the new rules anyways. Case in point, there is already a law which was supposed to ban per-ticket bounties to speed camera, yet the overwhelming majority of speed camera programs in the state have such deals in place.  There are several restrictions on the calibration of speed cameras, and we have documented on our site that many times those requirements were not followed.  There are restrictions that speed cameras be placed only in school zones, but jurisdictions just created NEW school zones which cover entire towns and cities solely for the purpose of deploying speed cameras.  We've even documented how speed camera programs have obstructed access to records which should be made available under the Public Information Act, even claiming that records which the state's speed camera law says must be kept on file cannot be disclosed because they've been outsourced to a private contractor.

While legislation to TRY and fix the problems with the system may be a good thing and worth pursuing, can lawmakers really change the fundamental attitude of local governments which believe they are above the law?

There is really only one piece of legislation that can fix this problem, and would be a bill putting the repeal of transportation articles 21-809 and 21-810 to a referendum, and allowing the people to decide for themselves whether speed camera programs have in fact lived up to the promises that have been made.

In 2009, there was an unsuccessful effort to put speed cameras to a ballot.  There are tight timelines for petitioning a bill to referendum in MD and at that time the movement was told they needed to meet bizarre signature requirements (some of which have since been struck down on other measures).  There was no well prepared organization ready to take it on quickly enough, the AG told the petitioners to rewrite their petition several times before they could start collecting, and once they started signature gatherers were being told they could not collect at public places like metro stations.  So under those conditions, no, the petitioners were not able to get the signatures by the deadline.

But since then some of the restrictions that inhibited the petitioners have been ruled invalid, and other groups were able to successfully petition laws online using techniques which the speed camera petitioners were told they were not allowed to use.  Things might have been different had those barriers not been in place  But more to the point, in 2009 the people did not know what they know now about speed cameras.  They did not know so many local governments would break so many rules.  They did not know speed cameras would be used in such a predatory way, and that some jurisdictions like Forest Heights issue more money in camera fines than their entire budget from other sources (based on FY2011 figures).  They didn't know 75% of Baltimore would be declared a school zone, or that other towns would designate their entire territory as school zones so they could put cameras almost anywhere.  And they didn't know that innocent people would in fact be issued tickets in large numbers as has happened in Baltimore City.

Under MD's rules it may be late to do a statewide petition.  But lawmakers can still do the right thing and pass legislation to put cameras to a binding referendum and let the public be the judge as to whether the promises made to the public have been kept.

Why should lawmakers be afraid to let the people vote?

Speed camera programs always run extensive public relations programs, and typically claim the cameras are popular.  If this is true, would the people not choose to keep the cameras?  The people of Maryland have voted in favor of referendum issues which would likely been rejected in most other parts of the nation.. Speed camera contractors would no doubt put their money and PR apparatus, and local governments across the state all have their own stumps and PR departments that can spin their side of this issue to their hearts content.  The state's political establishment is holding all the cards and should feel pretty sure that the people will support them on the cameras.... right?  How could they possibly lose such a referendum given that everyone wants the cameras, which as we all know are all about safety not money?  And if the people did vote for such a thing, that would prove the case that the cameras are what the people want... critics would have nothing more they could reasonably say about on matter since the people will have spoken.

Certainly lawmaker who thought it was OK to put an issue like gambling to the people has a right to complain about such a bill.  Clearly any such lawmaker has already confirmed it is OK to let the people directly decide legislative issues from time to time.

Certainly no organization which truly speaks for drivers, as opposed to one which actually speaks for the insurance industry, should oppose a bill to let  motorists vote on an issue which affects drivers.  Would they?

In fact we'll even throw this in there as well: if speed cameras are put to a public vote in Maryland, and the people vote to keep the cameras, the editor of StopBigBrotherMD.org will go on TV to tell people that I was wrong, that speed cameras are just fine, that people should all stop complaining about speed cameras and if they get a ticket to just pay their fines without question.  And then we'll permanently take our website offline.  Because if the people of Maryland vote for it then it's apparently what they want and deserve.

But perhaps state lawmakers know the truth... that voting to put speed cameras to a referendum is as good as banning them directly.  In a recent online pole by the Baltimore Sun, over 75% of respondents said to "scrap" the state's speed camera law.  State and local government officials don't want to give up that revenue, or even risk it.

If you oppose speed cameras, YOU are the silent majority.  Don't believe the lies of the photo enforcement industry which will try to convince you otherwise.  But in order to change anything, YOU cannot be silent anymore.

Find your state lawmakers at www.mdelect.net, and tell them you want repeal of the state's speed camera statute put to a referendum.