Friday, June 27, 2014

Montgomery County Advances Plan To Take Lanes From Motorists

Montgomery County is moving ahead with a rapid bus transit plan which would result in motorists having fewer lanes available to them while they end up paying higher taxes to fund the program.

WTOP reports on the transit plan:
Getting the job done will require the reworking of a lot of major roads. It would mean narrowing existing lanes where you drive, shortening the shoulder, buying up lanes or paving over grass in the median between lanes.
A draft document from the Montgomery County Planning Board finds that most of these roads can support a brand new 11-foot lane without too many changes for drivers.
The proposed network would include lines on Md. 355, U.S. 29, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and Randolph Road. But the most likely scenario would include the Md. 355, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road routes being built first, the others later.
But some stretches along 29 in Four Corners and 355 near the National Institutes for Health and Walter Reed can't accommodate new lanes. 
Along these stretches, a proposal would take away a current lane of traffic for cars and repurpose it for buses only. People living in these areas have opposed that idea because they are worried it'll make bad traffic even worse for drivers. 
The plan is based on the unproven assertion that it will relieve traffic congestion by encouraging motorists to give up driving.  Those taken in by this idea often allow themselves to believe the fantasy that a transit project will make their commute better because OTHER motorists will use it and make room for them on the road.  However this wishful thinking is doomed to fail because other drivers are thinking the same thing.

The fact is that the county is not capable of providing transit routes between all homes and people's work places.  Except for those people who both live and work along the route, most would end up having to walk or take other transportation at one or both ends of their commute, and that ends up taking significantly more time than driving even taking traffic congestion into consideration. Furthermore, even this "rapid" transit line will still make frequent stops, and thus won't be faster than driving in most cases.  Since time is the basis on which most drivers arrive at their choice of commuting options, most drivers will not stop driving to work unless this plan succeeds in making driving conditions so much worse for drivers that driving becomes am unacceptable option.  What is more disturbing is that this may be what some members of the county government actually want.


Despite this, motorists will still be the ones who pay for Ike Legget's plan.  The proposal is likely to cost $1billion-$2billion to implement.  The county has yet to figure out where the money would come from, but it would likely be either from motorists' recently increased state gas taxes, or from their property taxes.

Drivers should not be deceived by the county government's false assertion that this expensive plan paid for by motorists will make their commute easier.
One thing is for certain: if motorists do not become more vocal and more organized about defending their own interests, we will continue to be last served when it comes to transportation planning and the first ones taxed to pay for things every other interest group wants.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

$ick of $cameras? Get out and VOTE!

This Tuesday, June 24 is the Maryland primary election.  Motorists must make their voices heard in both November and June votes or our interests and our rights will continue to be neglected.  If you don't vote you are getting the government you deserve!

Opinion: OAG an Important Decision for Voters, Motorists

With Maryland primaries only days away those voters who are not bored by the process probably have their minds on who will get the governorship, maybe county council races, and a few hotly contested legislative districts.  But The Attorney General's position is one statewide office which can have a direct bearing on motorist.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Prince George's Sentinel: Circuit Court Rules Against Morningside

In today's Prince George's Sentinel:
UPPER MARLBORO – On May 23, a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge ruled the town of Morningside broke the law when town officials refused to provide information about its speed camera program in a timely manner.
[...]
According to Judge Albert Northrop’s order, Morningside “failed to maintain the requested records, conduct a reasonable search for the records, or provide [Ely] with the name and possible location of a possible custodian,” pursuant to the law. “If Respondent had been compliant this lawsuit would not have been necessary,” Northrop wrote in the court order.
Read the entire article at:
http://www.thesentinel.com/pgs/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=474:circuit-court-rules-against-morningside&Itemid=766

The chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance brought the case "pro se" after Morningside denied a request under the Maryland Public Information Act for speed camera calibration records in 2013.  "Please be advised that the Town of Morningside is not the speed monitoring system operator as that term is defined in the Maryland Annotated Code, and, therefore, the Town of Morningside does not maintain the records and documents pursuant to your request."  The specific records requested in this case were "daily setup logs" and "annual calibration certificates" which Maryland's speed camera law specifically states "shall be kept on file", indicating a statutory requirement for the agency to have the records and that they should be disclosable public records under the MPIA.

The case could have implications for the transparency of speed camera programs, but also for local government transparency in other matters as well.  As stated in the May 29th ORDER "Respondent argued that the records were not in its possession because they were held by a contractor.  To allow public records held by a contractor to be exempt from the Public Information Act would be to render the entire act ineffective."

There have been few cases dealing with the issue of public records outsourced to the custody of a private contractor under Maryland law.  The Attorney General Manual on the MPIA states "an agency’s records remain “public records” even if the agency outsources the task of maintaining them to a private contractor".  The federal FOIA has much more extensive guidance written by the DOJ that "agency records maintained for an agency by an entity under Government contract, for the purposes of records management, remain subject to the FOIA".

Such documents must clearly be "public records" rather than "contractor records" because of the statutory requirement for retention, because of the fact that these documents are required for citations to be issued by agency police and for citations to be upheld in court, and because Brekford confirmed to us that their clients have immediate access to all of the requested documents.

In May, Brekford Corporation complied with a subpoena to produce the calibration records we had been seeking for 11 months since the request was originally placed with the town.  On June 12 the Attorney for Morningside submitted a consent motion and agreed to reimburse $307 in actual costs in compliance with the May 29th court order.

Recent related story:
http://www.mddriversalliance.org/2014/05/morningside-brekford-part-ways-speed.html

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Opinion: Speed Camera "Reform" Turned Out to Be Election Year Ploy

In the past year there has been much ado from state lawmakers about how they were going to "reform" Maryland's speed camera law.  These proposals were brought about by a number of things including:
     - Proven, systematic, erroneous speed readings in Baltimore.  This included examples of stationary cars getting tickets, trucks accused of moving twice their actual speed, an admission from Xerox that their cameras produced "radar effects" (that's how they say "error" without using the word "error"), and a "secret" audit showing error rates of up to ten percent.... adding up to tens of thousands of false accusations.  And all from cameras which passed calibration tests which are supposed to guarantee cameras are accurate.
     - Calibration problems in places like Hagerstown, Salisbury, and Greenbelt
     - Complaints of errors in other places like Wicomico County, Forest Heights, College Park, Cheverly, Montgomery County, and Morningside
     - An audit of the SHA's speed camera program showed that the state skimped on its own testing procedures, calibration practices, and procurement policies.
      - Local governments systematically circumvented an existing rule in the law designed to forbid the so called "bounty system": paying contractors based on the number of citations issued.  Even Governor O'Malley has said this practice violates the original intent of state law.

All these problems and much more.  This was not "a few isolated problems"... it was widespread and systematic.  People were calling for audits.  They were calling for cameras to be required to provide "secondary evidence" to identify speed measurement errors.  There were calls for outside oversight of local speed camera programs by the state.  So this year the leadership in the state legislature resolved to pass "reform".  And in a demonstration of true political snakishness the legislature did pass a bill... a bill which promised the world but actually did NONE of these things... and have now declared the system is "reformed".

Right now the state lawmakers who voted for speed cameras in the first place are patting themselves on the backs for what they think has been a successful spin campaign to dupe the public into believing that the so called speed camera reform act has fixed these gaping problems.  We have explained in the past why this change to the law amounts to little more than "Polishing Poop" and won't really change anything.  Yet given that the supporters of speed cameras are currently conducting a massive media campaign to con the public, it bears repeating why this legislation does not solve the actual problem.

First, the supporters of the "Speed Camera Reform in Name Only Act of 2014"  assert that the problem with Maryland's speed camera law was that local governments were not doing enough to monitor their contractors.  In this they are almost half right.  But the real problem is that nobody was monitoring municipal speed camera programs, or ensuring that the rules were enforced.  Since everything is self enforced, why should they not break the rules, or bend them until they are meaningless?  Efforts to change this situation and include audits, oversight by the state, or an audit-able trail in the form of "secondary evidence of speed" to root out errors, were never seriously considered by the leadership of the committee which conjured this bill.

Second, lawmakers want the public to believe that this bill "ends the bounty system".  The reality is that rumors of the death of the Bounty System have been greatly exaggerated, and today the overwhelming majority of speed camera contracts still pay vendors a cut of the ticket proceeds.  One speed camera contractor has already boasted about signing NEW contract extensions which lock in existing "bounty system" contracts for years.

In addition, one should not forget that the bounty system was never supposed to exist in the first place, and that the ORIGINAL speed camera law that was in place for years already contained language clearly intended to forbid the practice.  We pointed out to the legislature a loophole in the language of the new law which may allow contractors to continue being paid based on the number of tickets so long as they don't explicitly use the words "per ticket" in their contract.  The committee knows about it, and deliberately decided not to fix it.  Montgomery County officials has been quoted by the Sentinel stating that the bill allows "hybrid leases", which would presumably not be truly flat fees.  And one county has already devised a scheme to avoid "the bounty system" using semantics, which their vendor has claimed is completely equivalent to their old system.

So there was an existing rule, and and existing promise, the clear intent of that rule has been consistently broken with semantic games by local governments across the whole state.  Now they tell us "We've created a new rule which makes it all better and we promise to start complying with it... but not for another THREE YEARS."  After the elections are long over.  After most people have forgotten what was promised.  If you believe that they are not going to engage in new legalistic semantic games to circumventing this rule and continuing to pay vendors a cut of the ticket revenues, then I have some ocean front property in North Dakota I'd like to sell you cheap.

Other provisions of the new law are similarly loophole ridden or ineffective.  But more importantly, they are all self-enforced.  If a local government does not WANT to enforce them, they will go unenforced and there is nothing anyone on the outside of the program can do about it.  That was the original problem with Maryland's speed camera law, and since the state has willfully chosen not to provide outside oversight that has not changed.

Finally, the supporters of this legislation want you to believe this bill represents some sort of "grand bargain" between speed camera supporters and opponents.  That would be utterly false.  The truth is that this bill was largely written by Montgomery County's speed camera program and by other local governments which run speed cameras (mostly though their representatives Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League).  Montgomery County has boasted how they will see few changes with this bill, and how they "worked closely" with sponsors of the bill to ensure this would be the case.  Local governments like Gaithersburg and Rockville each wrote "Protecting the Speed Camera Program" as part of their legislative agenda for the year, and in this they have declared success.

There were alternative, stronger proposals for reform, and the true purpose of this bill was to PREVENT those proposals from passing, without lawmakers from needing to actually vote on them.  And then the vice chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, Delegate Malone, began the Feb 18th hearing on those bills by openly stating that no bills but his own would be considered.  Malone even went so far as to follow this up in the Motor Vehicles Subcomittee hearing by stating that he didn't think people with complaints about speed cameras should bring them to the legislature.  How is anyone to conclude that Malone, a key sponsor of the bill which just passed, actually cared about reform?  Calls for audits were cut off.  Reasonable amendments made by the Maryland Drivers Alliance specifically to protect the legal rights of motorists in small simple ways were never even considered.  Opponents of speed cameras, and the press, were even banned from meetings where speed cameras were discussed by local governments.  Supporting speed cameras was a price of a seat at the table, and when this bill was dumped on the floor the word to camera critics was "Take it because it's better than nothing."  There was no serious debate this year... when the hearings opened the political establishment had already decided to pass the weakest bill they possibly could, "reform in name only" which would have no significant effect on most existing programs, and to pass absolutely no more.

Indeed the bill does not even affect the State's own program AT ALL, since it does not apply to the separate statute which govern's the SHA's program.  How serious could the state have been about reform if it exempted itself?

The newly passed speed camera bill is just an election year ploy. Its purpose is to allow the lawmakers who voted for speed cameras to be able to claim they have "fixed" the law, and are assuming that the average motorist is too uninformed to realize the truth: that they are the ones who broke it and chose to keep it broken by ignoring stronger proposals for reform.  They are assuming you are too gullible to look past it.  If you're not falling for it, you can see your state lawmakers' real voting record on this issue here, and your state delegates can rightly be judged on how they voted on an amendment to repeal speed cameras.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Drivers are "Biggest Loser" in DC Transportation Plan, Toll Roads Planned

Motorists visiting the nation's capital should expect more road taxes and may experience an active effort to deter driving in the future, if city planners have their way.  From Today's Washington Post:
A draft of the District’s long-range transportation plan calls for toll lanes at major entry points into the city and other efforts aimed at keeping vehicles off downtown’s congested streets.
MoveDC, which looks ahead to 2040, envisions a city with a wide transit network that includes a streetcar system, dedicated bus lanes in major commuter corridors, expanded Metrorail service in the downtown core, an active water taxi system and 200 miles of on-street bicycle facilities.
Widening the transportation choices and deterring personal vehicle use are key to meeting the increasing demand for transit in a city that projects 170,000 new residents and 200,000 additional jobs in the next 25 years, D.C. transportation officials say.
[...]
 “If we continue to grow and don’t try to address vehicular traffic and make improvements, it will choke on ourselves,” said Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy and planning at DDOT. “If we did nothing, if we sort of left the system just as it is and we add all those people, we will have some real severe problems.”
Encouraging carpooling and transit use can help make the system more manageable, he said. But recommendations to manage traffic into the city — the main employment center in the region — with measures such as tolls and HOV lanes are likely to be controversial in an area where the car is still king. Smart-growth advocates, however, praised DDOT’s plan and its vision to expand and encourage transit, walking and biking.
Read the complete article on the Washington Post

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brekford Press Release Proves New Speed Camera Rules Have Changed Nothing

Speed Camera Contractor Brekford Corporation has published a press release boasting that they have been awarded multi year contract extensions which allow them and their clients to avoid newly created speed camera rules for years to come.
Brekford Corp. (the "Company") (OTCBB: BFDI) (OTCQB: BFDI), a leading public safety technology service provider of automated traffic safety enforcement ("ATSE") solutions, parking enforcement solutions, and an end-to-end suite of technology equipment for public safety vehicle services, today announces contract extensions of its existing clients including the City of Laurel, the City of Hagerstown, and the City of Salisbury, Maryland.
With many of the Company's Maryland contracts due to expire this year, extension discussions were complex as the Maryland legislature was debating SB350, also known as the "Speed Monitoring System Reform Act of 2014," which became law on June 1, 2014. Among other revisions to the original 2009 legislation authorizing cameras statewide in Maryland, the Act states that a presently existing obligation, contract, or contract right may not be impaired in any way and that the Act does not repeal any current obligation, contract, or contract right in existence before the effective date of the Act through June 1, 2017.
We are excited to be awarded multi-year contract extensions with an overwhelming majority of our clients," commented Rod Hillman, President and Chief Operating Officer of Brekford Corp. "This validates Brekford's commitment to superior customer service and integrity with respect to supporting critical public safety initiatives such as ATSE.
In other words, the speed camera "bounty system" is still alive and well, and will be unaffected for years to come.

The authors of the newly passed speed camera legislation, who want you to believe "everything is just fine now", have been conducting a public relations campaign claiming how this bill fixes the gaping problems with Maryland's speed camera law.  Of course the Maryland Divers Alliance knew all along this bill was "reform in name only" and that nothing would be different on June 1 when it went into effect.  We have written about this bill at length previously.  The fact that local governments could sign new contract extensions to avoid all the new rules for years to come was one of the issues we raised.  But this is issue which the cheerleaders for the meaningless reforms, who want people to incorrectly think that they systematic problems with Maryland's speed camera law are all fixed (so they can come back in future years and work to expand speed cameras), are entirely glossing over.

Brekford's press release comes on the tail of news that the Town of Morningside did not continue their contract with Brekford for the town's troubled camera program. However it's not completely clear whether the discontinuation of that contract was the idea of the town, the contractor, or a mutual decision.

We have argued that the speed camera reform act is merely a paper tiger intended to mislead the public and the press in an election year, and that it will actually have little or no practical effect.  Right off the top, the state exempted their own program from all new rules, since the SHA's program is covered by a different statute than the one which governs local speed camera programs.

Montgomery County has boasted that the bill will have little effect on their own program, and in fact that they wrote much of the bill's provisions.  The Montgomery County Sentinel wrote that Montgomery County Police Captain Tom Didone stated that their program would see "few changes" under the new rule, and that he had "worked closely with Delegate James Malone (D-12A, Baltimore and Howard Counties) in drafting the legislation".  Didone also confirmed in the Sentinel article that the bill would allow a "hybrid-type lease”, rather than a flat fee, to replace their existing "per ticket" arrangement.

Our own analysis of the bill is that such "hybrid" leases could still pay based on ticket volume, so long as they do not state that they are explicitly "per-ticket".  Should anyone double that such a legal gimmick is possible, they need only look at the fact that the rules of the original law were supposed to ban payments based on the number of tickets in the first place.  However Mongomery County's team of taxpayer funded attorneys INVENTED the loophole which is now commonly referred to as the "bounty system", and all the other local speed camera programs in the state followed suit.  They are now no doubt working to circumvent the new rules to continue paying based on ticket volume in some way indefinitely.  Indeed Wicomico County has proposed a way to get around the "bounty system" ban, before it was even passed, by breaking the per-ticket payments into four separate payments based on ticket volume, which their vendor has stated was "created to be equivalent to the old system" they had before.

Of course as is made plain by Brekford's press release,  they don't need to worry about that for 3 years anyways.  By which time you will have forgotten about this posting, the public will have forgotten about the tens of thousands of false accusations made by erroneous speed cameras in Baltimore, state lawmakers making promises to you now will have been safely re-elected, and speed camera companies and taxpayer funded lobbying groups working for local government speed camera programs will be hard at work trying to expand automated enforcement and remove existing restrictions in the law.   Don't you just love politicians?

Monday, June 2, 2014

A day in speed camera court

Speed camera cases are heard by a variety of judges who are assigned on a rotating schedule.
 

Here's how the morning court session went on a recent day in Montgomery County.  The judge was James Sarsfield.

The speed camera dockets were posted in the foyer near the elevators.  There were 45 names listed on the Montgomery County speed camera docket and 8 names listed on the Gaithersburg city speed camera docket.

At 9:00 AM, the bailiff, Dennis Jackson, spoke from the front of the court room and reminded everyone to turn off cell phones, to keep conversations to a minimum, and that reading was not allowed, except for reading of material related to court. 

At 9:05 AM, the clerk said "Please rise", and Judge Sarsfield walked in and sat at the bench.   Judge Sarsfield then said "Please be seated."

Judge Sarsfield made a brief speech explaining that defendants could simply pay the $40 fine before trial if they desired to do so.  He said that defendants who are found guilty at trial will be assessed a fine plus court costs of $22.50.   Sarsfield also reminded defendants that those who pay the fine or are found guilty will not be charged with any "points" on their driving record, not will their car insurance be increased due to a a finding of "guilty".   It sounded like a sales talk to try to get people to plead guilty and avoid a trial.  No one took Judge Sarsfield up on his offer to pay the fine before trial.

Montgomery County sent three representatives to testify against defendants.  The first was speed camera technician K.D. Burriss, a large blond woman in her 50's.  The second was a portly gentleman with a gray beard, R.F. Hebron, also a speed camera technician. Both speed camera technicians were dressed in black uniforms.  The third representative was the manager of the Montgomery County speed camera program, a partly bald gentleman dressed in a suit.

The docket was called in alphabetical order by first name (not last name).

About 1/4 of the defendants did not show up for court.

Of the remaining defendants, all except one were found guilty.  In most cases Judge Sarsfield reduced the fine to $20 plus court costs, so the defendant came out only a $2.50 worse than if he or she had simply paid the citation.   (Of course, that doesn't take into account the cost of parking or the value of the defendant's time or lost wages.)

One of the defendants was a lawyer who specializes in defending traffic citations   Judge Sarsfield recognized him at the beginning of the hearing and said "I'm surprised to find you here."  The lawyer presented his defense rather professionally, and then Judge Sarsfield found him guilty without giving any explanation.   After the case was heard, the lawyer told the MDA observer that Judge Sarsfield finds substantially everyone guilty in speed camera court.

The only person to be found "not guilty" was a lady who brought her passport with visa stamps showing that she was not in the USA when the alleged violation occurred.   Judge Sarsfield did not ask the defendant who was driving her car when the alleged violation occurred. 

Even the most bizarre claims by the county speed technicians were accepted as fact by Judge Sarsfield. In contrast, evidence presented by defendants was uniformly disregarded by Judge Sarsfield.  

The bottom line is that if your case is scheduled to be heard by Judge Sarsfield, it's probably best to have it postponed so that it will be heard by a different judge.


Upcoming speed camera trial dates for Montgomery County

Would you like to watch speed camera trials, perhaps in preparation for your own case?

Speed camera court is open to the public.  Here is the schedule for June and July for District Court in Montgomery County:

June 9
June 30
July 14


All speed camera hearings are held at the District Court building located at 8552 Second Avenue in Silver Spring.   The most convenient and least expensive place to park is at the county-operated Cameron Street Garage that is about one block from the courthouse.  Cash and credit-cards are accepted at the payment machines.

After entering the building, you will have to pass through a metal detector and possibly be padded down. You will be required to remove your belt and outerwear when you pass through the metal detector.   You will not be asked to show ID and no one will ask who you are or why you are there.

Cell phones may be taken into the courtrooms but they must be turned off.

Hearings generally run from about 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., depending on the caseload and how fast the judge wants get out the courtroom.

You can sit anywhere in the courtroom except for the first row and the area that is reserved for law enforcement officers.

You are allowed to take notes.  Voice recording devices may not be used in the courtroom.  You will not be allowed to read books, use Kindles, Androids, or IPads, do knitting or sewing, or perform any activity that is not court-related.   You can, however, read paper law documents, paper law books, and your own notes.  When bailiffs see someone taking notes, they occasionally ask if the note-taking is court-related.  All that you need to do is say "yes" and they'll leave you alone.

For the speed camera court schedule for other counties, call the District Court for your county.