By mid-January, Baltimore County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver was getting anywhere from 25 to 50 e-mails a day urging him to support more speed cameras in school zones.
The e-mails were mostly form letters from a website called Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools, the online home of a grass-roots group that originated on Facebook. The group's website was established by a public relations company with ties to the county's speed camera vendor, Affiliated Computer Services.
Oliver said his mind was already made up.
"I was in favor of speed cameras anyway for safety reasons, not for revenue generating," said Oliver, whose district is home to the camera that produced the most tickets.
The council voted 5-2 along party lines on Monday to allow an unlimited number of cameras in school zones — previously capped at 15. Most of the $1.4 million that Baltimore County has collected in fines went towards $1.1 million in contract costs with ACS, which had a contract to provide red-light cameras for the county. ACS also works with other Maryland jurisdictions, including Montgomery County. The rest of the money went to a special public safety fund run by the Police Department.
ACS hired Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs to help local groups show support for "proven safety measures." The public affairs firm is run by Steve Kearney, Gov. Martin O'Malley's former communications director, and Damien O'Doherty, who previously worked as a top adviser to former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
A company spokesman said ACS supports groups like parent-teacher associations, police departments and other safety advocates.
"Sometimes it's difficult for working parents to find the time to advocate on the issues that are important to them," Chris Gilligan said. "We support the parents in our communities with the tools they need to succeed: research, advice and direction on ways to spread their message through social media."
Patrick Rooney, a retired county police officer who's against adding cameras, said he believes ACS' public relations campaign should have gotten more attention.
"This company — they're the ones that are making all the money on it, and people need to start asking why," Rooney said.
Representatives of Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools did not respond to interview requests from The Baltimore Sun. Council members received varying numbers of e-mails and letters urging them to support the speed camera bill. The bill's lead sponsor, Catonsville Democrat Tom Quirk, said he received hundreds of messages in support. But Republican David Marks, who voted against the bill, got considerably fewer messages — 53. In the case of Pikesville Democrat Vicki Almond, most of the communication did not come from the website.
"I think a lot of the e-mails that I got were just from people in the district," said Almond. "I don't think they were from any organized group."
Almond said she did receive an e-mail from Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools requesting her support, and that she was swayed by residents in her district.
"Basically, my take on it from my constituents is it's a public safety issue in school areas," she said.