Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday that state law bars speed camera contractors from being paid based on the number of citations issued or paid -- a so-called bounty system approach used by Baltimore City, Baltimore County and elsewhere in Maryland.
"The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume," O'Malley said. "If any county is, they need to change their program."
In brief comments, O'Malley weighed in for the first time on criticism of speed cameras since The Baltimore Sun published an investigation of the devices, focusing on the city's network of 83 radar-equipped cameras. Several state lawmakers have since proposed changing state law that governs how counties and cities operate speed camera programs. Among the proposals is to add language clearly barring payments per citation.
O'Malley, who sponsored the legislation that authorized speed cameras statewide, reiterated his support for the systems, crediting them with contributing to a 25 percent reduction in traffic-related deaths. Fatal crashes in Maryland dropped from 659 in 2001 to 487 last year. More than 460 fatal crashes have been recorded in Maryland in 2012, according to the governor's office.
The governor said he does not support proposals by some lawmakers, including Baltimore County Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Democrat who plans to introduce legislation to penalize speed camera vendors who issue erroneous tickets by fining them. O'Malley said the courts are the proper venue to adjudicate citations.
"If the counties took a better and deeper look at their programs and operated them in compliance with state law, I think it would address the problems," O'Malley said. "I think the remedy is called due process. It has to stand up in court."
The Sun has found inaccuracies among six of the city's cameras, most recently at one on Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn. A Chevy Blazer was clocked at 46 mph, according to a citation issued in the city, even though time-stamped photos indicate the vehicle was doing 18 mph at the time.
In addition, The Sun has shown that it is impossible for motorists to verify the alleged speeds with the information printed on tickets issued by Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration.
The governor's comments come as the city negotiates a five-year contract with a new speed camera vendor, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County. City transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the negotiations are not expected to wrap up until after the first of the year. She did not respond to an email asking whether the city would rule out a pay-by-ticket contract with Brekford.
The speed camera program has been lucrative for Baltimore and its current contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions.
The city took in $19.2 million in revenue from speed cameras last fiscal year -- $4.2 million more than expected. City officials said they expect revenue to drop as the cameras lead drivers to reduce speeds, and budgeted $11.4 million for this fiscal year. In the first five months of the fiscal year, the city has taken in $9.6 million in revenue.
More than $48 million has been collected since the program began in late 2009.
The city has paid Xerox about $13 million of that three-year total. Under its contract, which is about to end as the city switches vendors, Xerox gets up to $19.20 of each $40 citation. The company's share is smaller for citations logged by certain cameras, such as those where red light cameras exist.
Mark Talbot, a Xerox vice president, said in an earlier interview that the type of contract does not affect its operations: "There isn't a violation that's issued that isn't reviewed and approved by our customers -- the county or state or city agency," he said. "So we don't issue violations. We don't control when they do get issued."
Talbot said some governments prefer flat-fee contracts, including the one the State Highway Administration has with the firm, while others opt to pay Xerox a percentage. "For me, either way," he said. "The industry is successful when it's doing the job we say it can do, which is to reduce violations."
Several legislators said state law bars contracts that pay a share of each ticket. When the General Assembly legalized speed cameras statewide in 2009, the legislation included a provision that says if a city or county hires a contractor to operate its speed camera system, payments to the company cannot be based on the number of tickets issued or paid.
Some local governments contend that the prohibition doesn't apply to them because they -- not the contractor -- operate the system.
The aim of the legislative provision was to guard against "abuse of the motoring public," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat, who previously served as county executive and police chief.
"Incentives could lead to some questionable decisions being made on the part of the contractor," he said. "I'm not questioning the integrity of the contractors working out there, but it could lend itself to that kind of misconduct or mischief."
Robey said he had been under the impression that no jurisdictions used that kind of contract. "We're prohibiting it, aren't we?" he asked during an interview. He expressed surprise at hearing that Baltimore City and some counties pay their contractor a percentage of each citation.
"It certainly makes me a little uncomfortable knowing that incentive is in there," he said.
Howard County has a contract with Xerox that pays the firm $9.65 per ticket for the first 5,000 citations and a smaller amount per citation for subsequent increments of 5,000 tickets. County employees control so much of the speed camera program that the per-citation payment to Xerox is just a processing fee on top of a flat-rate equipment rental for two vans, said county spokesman David Nitkin.
Earlier this year, Baltimore County changed how it pays its contractor, also Xerox. The county had been paying about $12,000 a month for each camera, no matter how many citations were issued. Now it pays Xerox about $19 of every $40 speed camera citation paid by drivers.
County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler described the new arrangement as "an improved financial package" for the county that would yield more money for public safety initiatives.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit in Washington, discourages paying by the ticket, in part because of public perception, said Jonathan Adkins, the group's deputy executive director. He said the biggest challenge facing speed cameras is the suspicion that the primary purpose is to raise money -- not improve public safety.
"In a lot of cases, we've lost the public relations battle," he said, noting that Arizona removed its speed cameras amid public anger. "The best practice is to have a flat fee -- a set amount of money."
Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat and chairman of the city's legislative delegation, said the legislature needs to clarify the law to say "regardless of whether the contractor or local jurisdiction operates, any fee cannot be based upon the number of citations issued."
"That's legislation I would clearly be interested in pursuing," he said.
Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he isn't sure whether a change is needed because the current law is clear.
"They have lawyers who have managed to craft a different meaning out of the same sentence," Frosh said of local governments. "We weren't trying to stop third-party operators from operating the system. We were trying to avoid a situation in which we create a perverse incentive to generate revenue."
The pay-by-the-citation model sparked a long-running legal fight that began in 2008 when ticket recipients sued Montgomery County and several municipalities in the county. It ended in August with the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, ruling against the plaintiffs on the grounds that the legislature did not give anyone the right to sue.
But the court did not decide the crux of the case -- whether and under what circumstances governments can pay contractors based on how many tickets the cameras generate.
The defense turned in part on the meaning of the word "operates." The governments argued that they operate the programs, while the contractor -- Xerox -- provides equipment and vehicles. A lower court sided with the local governments, as did the state's second-highest court, the Court of Special Appeals.
In his comments Tuesday, O'Malley, a Democrat, emphasized his belief that automated enforcement has had a positive effect on public safety.
"Part of the achievement of that 25 percent reduction has been the greater use of technology both in terms of red light cameras and speed cameras," O'Malley said. "But whether it's an officer pulling over a citizen for speeding by pacing him or an officer using a radar gun or this new technology, it all has to be able to stand up in court and be reliable.
"And the counties have to operate within the law that laid out the parameters for the operation of these cameras," he said. "We are doing that at the state level with SHA."
Anne Arundel County resident Joe Stumpf, 51, doesn't have confidence in Baltimore's cameras, which are all located in school zones. He was driving his Chevy Blazer in the 300 block of Patapsco Ave. in Brooklyn when a speed camera recorded him going 46 mph.
But the two time-stamped photos given as evidence of his speeding show the Blazer moved barely eight feet between the photos, taken 0.313 seconds apart. That works out to a speed of about 18 mph.
Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan did not comment on Stumpf's ticket but said the company believes that most problems are "isolated to a radar effect, which is caused by a high-profile vehicle being in the line of sight of the radar, when the speed is recorded."
In Stumpf's case, a large garbage truck was in front of his Blazer, making a left turn, as he drove past the camera. Stumpf could have challenged the ticket in court but said he could not afford to take off from work, so he just paid the $40.
"It's just not fair," he said. "They can say children, children, children all they want. It's a money grab."