Speed camera fiasco shakes faith in government

Marta Mossburg says Baltimore can't afford bad publicity from faulty speed cameras

December 18, 2012|Marta H. Mossburg

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became Mayor Speed Camera last week in the eyes of the nation.

Too bad for her. She had almost achieved national sanctification as Mayor Race Car and Mayor Crime Prevention until revelations from Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Calvert that a city speed camera ticketed a stopped car made a top billing on the Drudge Report and went viral on the web. About 14 million people each month visit Drudge, known for its provocative headlines and mix of high- and low-brow articles.

Call it her Carcetti moment. (Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti was the ambitious character in "The Wire" with whom Martin O'Malley was repeatedly compared — to the former mayor and city's discredit, Mr. O'Malley felt.)

Sadly for her, she won't be able to shake the rap easily, because the story is bad and keeps getting worse with every report by Mr. Calvert and Luke Broadwater.

The latest one reveals that more than 5 percent of tickets at five speed cameras that have issued about 15,000 tickets could be wrong. Previous reporting by Messrs. Broadwater and Calvert revealed that police officers were rubber stamping tickets without analyzing them — like a small-scale version of the robo-stamping of foreclosure documents that resulted in a $25 billion bank settlement with 49 states earlier this year.

The Sun reporters also revealed that city officials had known since July that one camera at Cold Spring Lane wasn't working but did not take it offline or investigate until recently. If that isn't enough evidence that residents and visitors are viewed as merely ATMs for City Hall, maybe the fact that the city has more speed and red light cameras than any other locality in North America will do it. Or the fact that the mayor's response to all of this so far is to call a task force. (I hope it is a "Blue Ribbon" task force!) Additionally, after she found out the ticket program raked in $4 million more last year than expected for the city, she told grumblers to obey the law and described the $40 tickets as a "minor inconvenience." Talk about giving context to the city's attitude toward those who challenge its hegemony.

It's so bad, I am surprised noted trial lawyer Peter Angelos hasn't yet set up a hotline to jump-start a class action lawsuit against the city. Maybe 1-800-TKT-WRNG would do the trick.

It's all the worse that this is happening in the same city where government charges taxpayers for lavish dinners and $1,000 video phones but refuses to pay poor people poisoned by lead in city housing as mandated by federal court.

It would be much better if officials set up toll booths at the border of the city and charged an entry fee. That method would at least be a more transparent taking.

The speed camera investigation shows that current treatment of those who live and work in the city is callous, bordering on criminal. But the biggest problem with it is that it breeds contempt for government at a time those in power can least afford it.

A judge struck down in September a pension overhaul for city police and firefighters that the mayor's office said would have saved $64 million each year. Depending on the final legal outcome of that case and any negotiations between the city and the unions, Baltimore could find itself millions more in the hole each year than anticipated. Add onto that a crumbling infrastructure exemplified in the cost of repairing a major water main break on what seems like a monthly basis, and the future is not looking so bright. Then, there is the problem of the ever-shrinking tax base and school buildings falling apart. Good luck to the yet-to-be-built Horseshoe casino to shore up city finances.

All those problems require moral authority to fix. When city residents and visitors believe they exist to be fined, they become less willing to give back, to trust those in power and ultimately stay in the city. Shutting down all cameras until the city can confirm through an independent analysis that they work properly would go a long way toward reaffirming Mayor Rawlings-Blake's leadership. And who knows, Drudge might even pick it up.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com.

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