Howard County speed camera bill poised for approval

Speed camera and wineries votes May 2

April 28, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Legislation allowing speed cameras in Howard County school zones appears likely to pass the County Council on Monday night, following nearly two hours of questions for county Police Chief William J. McMahon at a council work session late Tuesday.

Two council members, Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty of West Columbia and Courtney Watson of Ellicott City and Elkridge, said they plan to support the Ulman administration bill. Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, indicated she too would likely vote for the cameras.

"I'm interested in keeping our kids safe," she said, but "I'm not a particular fan of cameras." The council's fourth Democrat, Chairman Calvin Ball of east Columbia, would not commit either way, but he has generally been a reliable Ulman ally and didn't express any particular opposition to the bill. "I want to ensure we go through a thorough process," he said.

"My guess is it's 4-1" in favor of passage, Watson said. She expected the council's only Republican, Greg Fox of Fulton, to vote against the measure.

But Fox refused to say how he would vote, meaning no council member has said he or she opposes the bill. "You'll get my vote the night of the vote," Fox said.

The council also discussed a long-delayed zoning bill that would allow wineries in Howard. Sigaty and Fox offered an amendment to give residents in some rural zones the extra protection of a separate hearing and approval process for wineries of 5 acres or more on preserved, nonagricultural land where homes have been clustered to provide more open space.

"I still have some concerns, but this is what we're able to compromise on," Fox said.

In addition, the council later held a public hearing on County Executive Ken Ulman's proposed $1.56 billion operating budget. The less-than-90-minute session was lightly attended, with about 35 people representing a variety of nonprofit human services, tourism and arts organizations urging the council not to cut their annual grants.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks revealed that in addition to eliminating four unpaid furlough days between Christmas and New Year's Day — which amount to a 1.5 percent pay cut — county workers will be paid for the days but still get to stay home. Employees will get no cost-of-living raise, however, and major tax rates would not increase.

"We'll again be closed between Christmas and New Year's," Wacks told the council.

On the issue of speed cameras, the council's questions for the police chief touched on a long list of often technical points. Council members at one point debated the definition of a school zone and questioned who has the authority to set speed limits.

"What's to stop the dropping of all speed limits?" Ball asked at one point. He said such a move could snare more drivers.

"The professionalism and integrity of the Department of Public Works," McMahon replied, referring to the agency that sets speed limits on county roads. Terrasa wondered about speed camera images that may capture other people doing other things. "That's part of what concerns me," she said.

"These cars are on public roads," McMahon said. "There's no expectation of privacy on a public road."

The pictures would be destroyed after a case is adjudicated, and pictures that don't result in tickets would be kept 18 months, as red-light camera shots are now, in case questions arise about a ticket not issued.

"Let's not escape the fact that it's the law and somewhere along the way it became optional" to obey speed limits, McMahon said. The proposed law allows speed cameras only in school zones and issues a $40 ticket only for drivers going more than 12 mph above the limit. A county police officer would review and sign off on every ticket issued.

The council heard from supporters and critics of speed cameras at an April 20 public hearing. Unlike the complex zoning legislation governing wineries, however, the speed cameras involve a relatively clear choice between accepting them as needed for public safety or opposing them as an unacceptable intrusion and possibly a mere device for raising revenues.

In Ulman's proposed budget, the first two cameras, vans to house them and employees to operate them would cost nearly $1 million, with projected revenues of $1.2 million if the bill passes and tickets begin flowing by Nov. 1. The profits must be spent on public safety.

As originally conceived by state Sen. James N. Robey, a former county police chief and two-term county executive, the cameras could have been used on any county road with a speed limit up to 45 mph, with a $75 fine. But to get the bill approved by the General Assembly in 2009, the fine was lowered and the cameras were limited to within a half-mile of a school.

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