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City suspends speed camera tickets amid new mistakes

Citations based on 25 mph limit when it is really 30 mph

April 17, 2013|By Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

The problems with the city's program spurred legislation in the General Assembly this year. As the 90-day session wound down, the House of Delegates passed a bill to limit camera placement to sites closer to schools, require local governments to appoint an ombudsman for citizen complaints and permit governments to modify contracts paying vendors a "bounty" for each $40 citation.

But the bill died in the Senate when Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and vocal speed camera opponent, mounted a mini-filibuster because he felt the bill did not go far enough. He was also unhappy about the elimination of a provision he wanted that would have mandated the calibration of each camera quarterly rather than annually.

With the clock nearing midnight on April 8, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had a choice to make, according to Senate staff: He could halt Pipkin's blocking maneuver and let a dozen other late-moving bills go down. Or he could let Pipkin stop the camera bill and get the other measures through. He chose the latter.

Among the bills lined up behind speed cameras were a landmark campaign finance bill and a Miller-backed bill putting a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from future diversions to other purposes.

Despite the demise of the speed camera bill, Del. James E. Malone Jr., the sponsor of the House measure, said he hoped the city and counties would choose to adopt some provisions.

"Hopefully, everybody heard what we were trying to do," said Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Hopefully, the municipalities will say, 'We've got to make sure we get this right.' Hopefully that will be the good that will come out of it."

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored a speed camera bill in the Senate, made a similar point. "We have to try again, but you kind of hope … you've created enough publicity and public debate that the jurisdictions are shamed into doing the right thing."

Malone said he worked on the bill for more than three months and got everyone — camera critics and their government supporters — to agree to the changes. "The bill put the confidence back in speed cameras," he said.

A task force formed by Rawlings-Blake to study the city's red-light and speed camera programs has compiled draft recommendations. But AAA's Averella, a task force member, said the panel will continue discussing those at its next meeting in May.

"It's certainly AAA's hope that some of the legislative measures will be recommended by the task force," she said.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department has confirmed staffing changes in the city's speed camera program.

No longer helping to run the program — but still with the department — is engineering supervisor Raj Sharma. In December The Sun reported that city officials were so worried last summer about inaccurate speeding tickets coming from a camera on West Cold Spring Lane that Sharma wrote an e-mail ordering the problem be fixed before it could "get out of hands."

Yet that camera remained in operation for several more months, continuing to record erroneous citations. And it was only in November that the city said it was investigating the source of the errors. It was one of five cameras eventually turned off before the entire network went dark Jan. 1 during a bumpy transition from Xerox State and Local Solutions to Brekford.

Sharma and traffic engineer Francis Udenta had both played visible roles in the city's speed camera program, detailing the system for reporters and giving presentations to the task force.

Udenta is still involved for the time being, said a department spokeswoman, Adrienne Barnes. He's part of a four-person team temporarily working full-time on the speed camera program. But neither he nor Sharma will be among the three employees who will manage and oversee the program after a current transition period ends.

Barnes would not give the reason for the changes. Sharma declined to comment when reached by a reporter, and Udenta did not respond to messages.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

scalvert@baltsun.com

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/scottmcalvert

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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