Thursday, March 6, 2014

House Committee Votes Down Repeal, Audit, Reform Bills

A committee in the Maryland House of Delegates has voted down multiple speed camera reform bills, with the committee vice chair vowing that only the bill he has sponsored would be allowed to go to the full House.

Among the bill killed in committee was one sponsored by Delegate Braveboy, which would have authorized the state to perform audits of speed camera programs.  A bill sponsored by Delegate Jon Cardin, which would have ended payments based on the number of tickets and required speed camera citations to contain sufficient information to identify speed measurement errors was also summarily shot down.  Another bill calling for quarterly audits of all speed camera programs, which was sponsored by forty six delegates from both parties, was also voted "unfavorable" by the committee.

The committee likewise voted down a bill that would have repealed speed cameras.  The committee vote on that bill is shown here.
click to enlarge

Many of the bills were prompted by a "secret audit" of Baltimore City's camera program which revealed that the program had systematically issued erroneous speeding tickets to tens of thousands of motorists.  Some of the speed measurement errors were so outrageous that they included citations issued to stationary vehicles.  Other issues recently uncovered include problems in the Town of Morningside, where motorists have alleged they received inaccurate citations and where the town failed to produce calibration records upon request.  In places like Salisbury and Wicomico County, there have been other complaints about calibration issues and/or errors.   Additionally, many local speed camera programs have been flouting a provision of the law which was supposed to bar speed camera contractors from being paid based on the number of citations, something even governor O'Malley has said violates the intent of the law.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance testified in support of several bills heard on the 18th, arguing that auditing was essential to prevent abuse.  We argued that without some requirement for evidence of speed no bill could be said to address the problems of errors which prompted the legislation in the first place.

Delegate James Malone
However these arguments may have fallen on deaf ears, given that Delegate Malone declared at the beginning of the February 18th hearing, before any testimony was presented, that only his bill (House Bill 929) would be approved by the committee.  Malone stated that his committee already knew everything there was to know about speed cameras, and instructed those testifying that  "Today is 'me too day'" and that they should just respond 'me too' if they had nothing new to add the committee hasn't heard before.

HB929 was developed primarily based on input from local governments, and therefore includes only those changes which the larger camera programs in the state concluded would not significantly affect them.  Supporters of HB929 claimed that "stakeholders" were included in the writing of the bill, and Malone stated that the committee had continued working on HB929 "during the interim" since last year's session.  However motorists who testified on speed camera legislation last year, and the Maryland Drivers Alliance, were not informed of any ongoing discussions or meetings during this interim.  Nor was our input as to what our grievances with the speed camera system solicited by the sponsors of HB929.  Montgomery County's Captain Tom Didone testified in favor of HB929 (while still calling for it to be weakened further), and cited a December 4 2013 speed camera symposium as an example of how local governments were working to working to fix problems with speed camera programs.  However Didone failed to mention that this meeting was closed to the public and the press, and that Didone personally blocked a representative of the Maryland Drivers Alliance from observing the meeting. We are forced to conclude that motorists and those who raised complaints in the first place are not considered "stakeholders" in discussions about speed cameras by those who hold power.

In our testimony on HB929, we noted several deficiencies in the bill as originally submitted:
- The bill makes it so speed camera operators need never actually test equipment themselves.  This new loophole would permit speed camera contractors to test equipment, without giving defendants the right to question the person who actually performed the test.  This essentially allows additional "hearsay evidence" to be used against speed camera defendants, without permitting defendants to present hearsay evidence in their defense.

- The bill is claimed to "end the bounty system", something which was supposed to be banned by current law but is nevertheless common practice. However the bill's wording contains a newly created loophole which would permit payments based on the number of tickets to continue, so long as they are not explicitly called "per ticket".  Quotas, payments for "batches of tickets". and other clever arrangements such as one devised by Wicomico County, would all be legal using new "semantic gymnastics".
How one contractor would 'end the bounty system' using semantic games: "Redspeed assures the County that the new system was created to be equivalent to the old system"
- The bill grandfathers in all existing contract arrangements until 2017, meaning it would have little practical effect immediately.  Local governments would thus not need to exercise a new "loophole" until years later, which most people will have forgotten the promises being made by lawmakers now that the practice of paying based on the number of tickets would eventually end.

- The bill essentially still permits all local governments to police themselves, and does not include any sort of outside oversight.  The bill sponsors said they looked into "oversight" in the past, but that no state agency wanted to do it.

- The bill refers to errors, but contains no requirement that a means to identify errors exist.  Without secondary evidence, errors can simply be denied if the admission would be embarrassing or costly to a local government.

- The bill encodes into law that up to a 5% rate of errors (one ticket in 20) is acceptable.  For a program the size of Baltimore or Montgomery County, tens of thousands of tickets per year acceptable under the law.

- The bill contains several provisions which are strikingly similar to existing clauses in Montgomery County's contract with Xerox Corporation.  Encoding such provisions from a specific contractor's existing contract into law could give that contractor a competitive bidding advantage.  Xerox corp currently spends more money on lobbying than any other speed camera company in the state, and has employed a highly influential and well connected lobbying firm to represent their interests.

The key provision HB929 contains which supporters claim would address problems is a requirement that someone be assigned the role of responding to complaints.  This position is modeled after an "ombudsman" which Montgomery County claims they already have.  While having a REAL "Ombudsman" would be a change for the better, in reality the person Montgomery County has given this title is actually their program manager, and he does not fit the definition of the word at all.  In the Maryland Drivers Alliance's testimony we quoted Abe Lincoln "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg. "   Calling a program manager an "ombudsman" does not make them an independent advocate for the public, because he is already an advocate for the program.

In Montgomery County, their existing "ombudsman" stated to the legislature that he has voided 15-20 citations total.  This would be out of hundreds of thousands issued by Montgomery every year... and amounts to only about 0.005% of citations.  Contact information for this "ombudsman" does not appear on citations or in any obvious location on Montgomery County's website, so it is unlikely that most people would even know this person exists or that they could send him a complaint.  Most of the time complaints sent to Montgomery County are responded to by Captain Tom Didone (head of the county''s traffic enforcement division), not the nominal "Ombudsman" (Richard Harrison).  We have seen no indication that Mr Harrison has taken any positions contrary to the county's "official policy", or that he has ever ordered a mass refund of tickets over some systematic issue.  As such, we expect most local governments would likely follow this lead, give the new title to an existing staff member who is loyal to the program, without changing their current procedures significantly, and only void the most embarrassing and undeniable errors.  We believe, as written, this amounts to no more than politely asking municipal speed camera programs to do a better job of public relations.

Malone stated in a subcommittee meeting on the 18th that he believed local governments could deal with problems themselves, that he believed people with complaints about local speed camera programs like those in Morningside and Baltimore, should take those complaints up with local governments and not bring the complaints to state lawmakers.  Delegate McMillan, a co-sponsor of Malone's bill, did not respond to an email we wrote asking him whether he agreed with these statements by Malone.

This is not the final word on speed camera legislation this year.  The committee might still add amendments to HB929, or amendments might be added on the house floor.   However the bill's primary sponsor in the house has been an obstacle to prior efforts to obtain real reform of the system, and the sponsor of the Senate version (Senator Robey) is the author of the state's current corrupt and broken speed camera law.  Our belief is that any positive changes to this bill must come despite the efforts of these two sponsors, not because of them, since Robey and Malone will most likely try to shield the major county and municipal speed camera programs from any changes which might cut into revenues.  Real change will only occur if members of the public complain to state lawmakers loudly, frequently, and RIGHT NOW.