Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Montgomery County ATEU Defends Culture of Secrecy

The Montgomery County Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (ATEU) has vigorously objected to criticisms that the program lacks transparency.
These criticisms were raised by a report published by a Speed Camera Task force instituted by the Greater Olney Civic Association.  This report made several observations and recommendation regarding the county's speed camera program, and may be the closest thing to an independent review of the program that has ever taken place,

The GOCA report noted that "Olney Speed Limits were lowered prior to introduction of Speed Cameras", and noted the high proportion of speed camera citations issued in and around Olney relative to the rest of the county.  However most of the task force recommendations revolved around issues of transparency.

Citizens Advisory Board Closed To Citizens
The GOCA task force raised objections regarding a "Citizens Advisory Board on Traffic Issues" (CAB-TI) which reportedly reviews and affirms new speed camera locations.  The task force noted that there is no documentation as to how the CAB-TI members are selected.  The task force noted that the only way to contact the CAB-TI is by requesting a new speed camera location, there is no documented way to object to a speed camera location or provide any sort of public input or complaint.

There has not been an attempt to appoint a CAB-TI with balanced views of the camera program; instead, the members appear to be strongly pro-camera, consistent with the views of the ATEU itself.  In discussion, the CAB-TI representative informed the Task Force that it could recollect objecting to only one camera placement during the tenure of the current CAB-TI.  

The ATEU also had an Ombudsman position in the period leading up to 2014.   The Task Force expected the Ombudsman to be a liaison between the community and the camera program, representing concerns of the community and individual citizens with the program, individual citation
problems, etc.  However, the Task Force found the original Ombudsman to be a full-time County employee in the ATEU, specifically a ATEU contracting official on the Xerox camera contract.

and further noted that neither the so called "ombudsman" nor the CAB-TI operate independently from the ATEU.

The task force recommended:
Montgomery County should revise the Citizen’s Advisory Board for Traffic Issues (CAB-TI) applicable to the speed camera program, ensuring the Board is selected independently of the MCPD and ATEU, has established term limits, represents the full spectrum of views on the efficacy of speed camera usage, and that its views shall be considered by the ATEU. 
Montgomery County should appoint, fully independent of the MCPD,ATEU, and Local Designee, a Citizen’s Advocate to represent the citizens and communities regarding speed camera use, placement, and other concerns.

The automated Traffic Enforcement Unit responded to the task force by objecting to the GOCA report, including all findings and recommendations regarding transparency.

The ATEU's response objected to this recommendation with respect to the CAB-TI and Ombudsman, stating that "the Report’s findings with respect to transparency in decision making are flawed":
"the Traffic Division (like other MCPD directorates) consults an informal advisory board comprised of residents who bring varied perspectives to the table, but who lack personal agendas to either expand or contract the speed camera program.  Their participation is unique among similar programs in Maryland, and it helpfully informs the Traffic Division’s judgment.  However, the deliberative process surrounding the selection of speed camera locations like the processes for determining where and when other law enforcement operations will be conducted is not public, nor should it be."
Public Documents show that the CAB-TI was created in 2006 by the MCPD Director of Traffic, and the county website shows that the CAB-TI reviews locations where new speed ccameras would be deployed -- presumably with the intention of leading the public to believe that locations are selected in consultation with the public.  However there is no published information about who the members of this Citizens Advisory Board are, how someone would contact them with a complaint  or pertinent information, or when their meetings take place.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance contacted the Montgomery County Traffic Division Director and asked for the minutes of CAB-TI meetings, and was told that none were kept.

In June, the Maryland Drivers Alliance filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board, to determine whether the CAB-TI might fit the definition of a "public body" under the open meetings act.  The office of the county attorney has thus far responded with a nine page reply to the complaint, essentially confirming the material facts in the complaint (regarding the authenticity of public documents citing the CAB-TI's function and creation, and confirming that no minutes were kept), but asserting that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to them because "The upshot is that the Citizens Advisory Board - Traffic Issues" is not recognized as an advisory board that functions as part of the County Government.  The county attorney's office -- which employs a total of 48 taxpayer funded attorneys -- has requested an extension of an additional 30 days to compose a longer response to why the open meetings act should not apply too the CAB-TI, rather than simply using their resources to make the CAB-TI more transparent and representative of all citizens like the name "Citizens Advisory Board" implies.

CAB-TI Not the Only Secret Meetings
Montgomery County's ATEU has been involved in other secret meetings besides the CAB-TI.  In December 2013, Captain Tom Didone organized a "speed camera symposium" which included members of speed camera programs from across the state.  Included in the agenda were discussions of speed camera errors and upcoming legislation.  A co-sponsor of the event invited the Maryland Drivers Alliance to send an observer to the event.  However Captain Tom Didone forbid our representative entry, citing the fact that we oppose speed cameras as the reason.  The press was also forbidden to observe the event, which was co-sponsored by the Maryland Association of Counties(MACO) and the Maryland Municipal League(MML) --organizations which lobby on behalf of local governments -- largely at taxpayers expense.

In 2013-2014 Captain Didone and at least two other members of the Montgomery County ATEU also participated in secret legislative meetings that were part of what Didone referred to as a "Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup" (a term also used in a MaCO press release to describe the group.  In fact, Captain Didone once asserted the position that portions of state law which he disagreed were "not fully informed" merely because he was not personally present at the time it was written.  In an email dated Wednesday August 27, 2014, Captain Didone wrote:
"When the General Assembly revised the law in 2009, they removed the paragraph that required the owner to identify the driver, if they wished to transfer the liability.  This provision was a mandate in the law that passed the 2006 General Assembly when Montgomery County was authorized to operate the first speed cameras in the State. This is why I used the phrase “Loophole” because by removing the paragraph, an issue was created that was not previously experienced.
Last year, when I worked on the Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup, I was informed by staff that legislators voted to remove the “Squealer provision” as it was referred to when they revised the law in 2009.  It is my personal opinion that the legislators took this action without being fully informed of the consequences because they did not have the same workgroups as they did last year.  "
This workgroup, organized by former State Delegate James Malone, drafted speed camera related legislation passed in 2014.  We have since confirmed that the now former Program Manager and Captain Didone's deputy were involved in these work group meetings as well, as was the head of Prince George's County's speed camera program.  However opponents of speed cameras and the press were not permitted to observe these meetings.  The meetings were apparently held completely "off the books" -- with the Department of Legislative Services claiming to recognize no such workgroup.

Public Records Access Also At Issue
The GOCA Task force raised concerns that the County had been unable to produce certain requested information and had cited the fact that such information was maintained by their speed camera contractor, not by the county.  The task force made a modest recommendation:
Montgomery County should modify the speed camera contract to stipulate that all data captured on each citation shall be the property of the County, not the vendor, and that such data on citations, citation camera location, ticketed speed, etc. will be provided to the ATEU and published on the county website (protecting all Personally Identifiable Information (PII)). On several occasions the Task Force requested certain types of data but was informed the data being requested was maintained by the contractor (Xerox) in a proprietary data base and was not available

In their response, the ATEU stated:
"it is a matter of both practical and contractual necessity that the data generated by the Safe Speed program be maintained by  the vendor.  The County simply does not have the financial or human resources to perform the specialized data analysis that the Report seeks, and expanding the workforce to manipulate that data is a solution in search of a problem."

A circuit court previously determined that records of a speed camera program held by a contractor were public records that are subject to the Public Information Act in the case of "Ely vs Town of Morningside".

Montgomery County asserts that they county, not Xerox, "operates" the speed camera, and that the vendor does not substantially control the program.  However their response to the task force implies this is not truly the case, given that the county asserts it does not even have access to all program data and asserts that it doesn't even have the physical capacity to maintain or analyze information about the program.

This is not the only time issues have been raised with access to information about Montgomery County's program.  The editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance sent  the Montgomery County "Local Designee" several questions on June 6 pertaining to speed camera errors, which the designee has as of today not responded to.  Because of this, we followed up with a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request on June 22 for information relevant to those questions, and that request has also not been responded to as of today, even though the statutory time frame for responding to an MPIA request has elapsed.

Culture of Secrecy A Long Standing Tradition in Montgomery County
In 2011, Montgomery County's former Inspector General Thomas Dagley decried what he called a Culture of Secrecy in Montgomery County, stating "In Montgomery County, senior management in government and the county attorney’s office have grown too accustomed to operating behind closed doors and avoiding the tough questions."  It is clear based on our own recent experiences that nothing has changed since then, and that the current leadership in Montgomery has no intention of changing their secretive mindset which uses every loophole they can construct to avoid being transparent and honest with the public.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Montgomery County FY15 Speed Camera Revenues Exceeded Projections

Montgomery County estimated speed and red light camera revenues which exceeded projections in FY 2015.  Montgomery County had projected $14.6million in speed camera revenues for FY2015.  Instead, the county budget estimated $16.7.  This placed estimated speed camera revenues at approximately the same level as they were in FY14.

The county also exceeded projected red light camera revenues by 5.8%.

Both revenue sources are very significant politically to the MCPD Traffic Division.  Speed camera revenues are the single largest revenue source in the MCPD budget, making up 37% of the total revenues the MCPD brings in.  What is more, excluding State Aid (ie money given to the MCPD by the state), speed camera revenues exceed all other revenue sources combined.  Speed camera revenues are 60 times the amount brought in by "fines and forfeitures" other than photo enforcement.   The approximately $20million brought in by speed and red light camera revenues is over 5 times the $3.5million brought in by licenses & permits, charges & fees, fines & forfeitures, intergovernment funds and "miscellaneous revenues".

Despite the fact that speed camera revenues are frequently advertised as being earmarked "for public safety", in fact the revenues are marked in the budget as "COUNTY GENERAL FUND", meaning the money is apparently co-mingled with other revenues.  Saying any particular source of money is spent on any particular purpose or project is like pouring a glass of kool-aid into the ocean and trying to scoop it back out.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance confirmed earlier this year that Montgomery County continues to pay a "bounty" of $16.25 per ticket to their contractor, despite claims by some that an amendment to state law passed last year would "end the bounty system."  Montgomery County had an amendment in their contract prior to the passage of that amendment which would have allowed them to automatically switch to a flat fee per camera if the law was changed to require it, however that clause has not been exercised.

According to an April 17 2014 article in the Sentinel, Montgomery County's Captain Thomas Didone told the county council that that amendment to the law -- which he and two other members of Montgomery County's Traffic Division were personally involved in writing -- would require few changes to their program.  In that article Didone stated that the law would permit a "Hybrid Lease",  Montgomery County created the loophole in the previous wording of state law intended to forbid contracts based on ticket volume, simply by not using the word "operate" to define what the contractor does even though that contractor provides and maintains the cameras, processes violations, substantially runs major portions of the program.  Since Montgomery County has asserted they are not required to change their current arrangement until 2017, the public has no way of knowing until then whether a future contract might not be a "flat fee" but rather include some "hybrid" arrangement which still compensates the contractor based on ticket volume and is claimed to satisfy the law simply by avoiding using certain words (just as they did in the past).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Lidar Lie

After Baltimore City's disastrous speed camera program was forced to admit that their supposedly perfectly calibrated equipment had produced erroneous speed camera tickets due to what speed camera contractor Xerox referred to as "radar effects", speed camera using agencies desperately needed to find a new narrative to replace the platitude "if you won't speed you won't get a ticket".

One of the claims now made is that even though there were problems with speed cameras in Baltimore, that other speed cameras which measure speed with LIDAR cannot be wrong.  The implication that the device uses laayyyzeerrrs, which sound spacey and high tech, is supposed to lead one to believe the device cannot be wrong.

Because anything with lasers on it sounds cool
Of course, this is not true. It has been known for years that even devices which are properly calibrated can still be wrong due to external phenomenon.  One example of this is the sweep effect, something which has been known to exist and documented for years.

You see, in order for a hand held LIDAR device to work accurately, the beam must be held on a single point on the object being measured by the officer.  With a speed camera, the device tracks that point "automatically".  The assumption is that the machine does this correctly, and that it does this correctly every single time, in every single scenario, regardless of circumstances or external conditions, and that the beam will never end up "sweeping" from one point on the target to another which is a different distance away without this being detected.  Just like everyone assumed a radar device could not be wrong merely because it passed an internal calibration, and nothing outside the device could cause an error.... even though that turned out not to be true.

Certainly if you go to court, whomever represents the state will not acknowledge any knowledge of such phenomenon, even though they do have such knowledge, because testilying is a thing.  Rest assured the district court will always assume a device can never be wrong unless there is some very compelling evidence that it was wrong in your specific case... since in Maryland the concept of "reasonable doubt" is a privilege which applies only to career criminals, and not to ordinary citizens like YOU.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Speed Camera Companies Boosted Spending On Lobbying

Photo Enforcement Companies spent over $416,000 attempting to influence state legislators from May 2014 through April 2015, according to state ethics disclosures.

Speed Camera Company Xerox spent approximately $245,000 during this period to three lobbying companies.  Lobbyists from the firm Harris Jones & Malone was paid $55,000. $90,000 was paid to Gerard Evan LTD. Another $100,720 was paid to law firm Alexander and Cleaver to conduct lobbying.

(By odd coincidence, Alexander & Cleaver was also the law firm which represented the Town of Morningside in a dispute over access to public records filed by the editor of this website.  The attorney from Alexander & Cleaver argued that the town did not need to produce speed camera calibration records under Maryland's government transparency law because the program was run by speed camera contractor Brekford Corp.  Morningside lost that case.)

Prior to 2013, Xerox had been spending about $176,000 per year on lobbyists.

Xerox holds speed camera contracts with Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and the State of Maryland, as well as several municipalities.  The firm had been placed in an uncomfortable spotlight because they previously were forced to admit that speed cameras they ran under contract with the City of Baltimore were systematically issuing erroneous citations due to what the company referred to as "radar effects".

Speed Camera Contractor Optotraffic spent $47,788.84 on lobbying from 5/1/2014 through 4/30/2015 to the firm Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver.  This was almost the same as the $48,091 they spent in the previous year during this same period.

(Again by coincidence, Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver is the law firm which Optotraffic retained in a dispute between the Maryland Drivers Alliance and the Town of Brentwood, where Brentwood had delayed access to records about speed camera errors for four years.  Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver argued that Optotraffic should not have to produce records in response to a subpoena.  Eventually, after many additional months, documents were produced which showed that some erroneous speed camera tickets had been issued.... but only more than a year after the public records case had been brought to court and after the legislative hearing for which records had been sought to be presented at had passed).

Speed camera manufacturer Gatso paid $60,500 to the firm Greenwill Consulting Group during this period.  Gatso is a dutch owned company which produces the GS-11 radar speed camera which is used in several jurisdictions.  Gatso has attempted to get into the business of contracting directly for speed camera services, rather than merely providing hardware to other contractors.  It was announced last month that Gatso would be acquired by the Swedish firm Sensys AB, another speed camera manufacturer.

American Traffic Solutions paid lobbyists from Greenfield & Kress, P.A. a total of $62,000.  ATS is one of the largest photo enforcement companies in the US, and has tried to get into the speed camera business in Maryland but has so far been unsuccessful in capturing a major contract in this state.  It is possible ATS may be particularly concerned not only about speed cameras, but also about red light camera legislation.  In the last legislative session legislation was proposes which would have prevented red light cameras from being used issue tickets for slow moving right turns, a type of violation which now constitutes the majority of red light camera tickets issued in some jurisdictions.  That bill died in committee.

Lobbyists provide a way for firms to purchase influence in several ways.  First, lobbyists often make large donations to state lawmakers, which then appear under the name of the lobbyist rather than under the firm's name in campaign donation reports.  In addition, some lobbyists have established political connections.  For example one of the lobbyists retained by Xerox was Robert Garagiola, a former state lawmaker and former candidate for US congress who now works for Alexander & Cleaver.  Harris Jones & Malone is also extremely well connected, as demonstrated by the fact that the mayor of Baltimore City actually presided over the wedding of two senior partners in the firm.  In 2013 Harris Jones & Malone  made itself $285,000 for itself lobbying on various issues in Baltimore City alone.

Photo enforcement companies have been worried about legislation considered in the wake of the collapse of Baltimore City's disastrous speed camera program, and ensuring that no additional restrictions would be imposed beyond paper tiger rules passed last year.  That legislation was written by a secret legislative workgroup which included senior officials from agencies which run speed cameras, but opponents of speed cameras were not invited to participate.  One speed camera company declared victory in its press releases after that legislation passed, claiming that the changes in the "reform" bill would have no effect its existing contracts.

In addition, the election of a Republican Governor who had pledged to be more favorable towards motorists has likely raised concerns. During former governor O'Malley's term between November 2006 and October 2014, Xerox and ACS (the company Xerox acquired their speed camera business from) reported a total of $16,500 in campaign donations in Maryland exclusively to democratic candidates and organization.  This included 2014 donations of $4000 to Anthony Brown and $4000 to Ken Ulman, who were running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.   However immediately after Governor Hogan's upset victory over Anthony Brown, Xerox made a $2000 donation to the Maryland Republican Party Central Committee in November 2014, and a $2000 campaign donation in January 2015 to Larry Hogan's Campaign Fund.