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 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)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Insurance Administration orders State Farm to refund premium increases that resulted from "not at fault" claims

State Farm, one of the largest automobile insurance providers in Maryland, has been ordered to refund all premium increases that were due to "not at fault" automobile insurance claims by Maryland customers.

The refund orders, which were revealed by a official of the Maryland Insurance Administration (MIA) who is not authorized to speak on the record, were issued after State Farm was found to be non-compliant with the section of Maryland insurance law that pertains to notification of rate changes.