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Inside City Hall: Lessons from the speed camera mess

How NOT to develop “institutional knowledge” – a look back at a botched program

Above: An inoperative speed camera, turned away from traffic on North Charles Street.

Today the curtains parted just wide enough for the mayor to tell residents that Baltimore City will pay $600,000 to make its current speed camera vendor go away before the stage lights dimmed and the performance was over.

Asked what went wrong with the contract – and the contractor – whom the mayor publicly lauded a year ago, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the agreement hammered out by her legal staff had sealed her lips.

“We can’t discuss that,” she told reporters. “It’s part of the agreement of contract separation” with Brekford Corp., a technology service provider from Anne Arundel County who had wrested the contract away from Xerox State & Local Solutions in November 2012.

Recently we’ve seen the Rawlings-Blake administration seek high-tech (and often very expensive) solutions for rather mundane government responsibilities – “smart” water meters to cure the city’s chronic problems with reading meter dials correctly and “smart” garbage cans to streamline trash collection.

If the city can’t get 72 speed cameras to work, what will happen when it tries to install 400,000 radio-transmitting water meters?

Was to be Operated at No Cost 

The mayor today couched the speed camera mess as a learning experience for her administration, saying, “We are using the institutional knowledge we gained to work on putting out a new RFP [Request for Proposals].”

Before a new RFP is fashioned, the city could learn something from its experience with the last RFP, which seriously misled the public into thinking that the devices were a sure-fire revenue gainer for the city.

The original RFP stated that speed cameras would not cost the taxpayer a dime, with the vendor responsible “to operate and maintain Red Light and Speed Cameras and all other necessary field equipment at all existing locations.”

But almost immediately, unexpected consequences arose from using Brekford, which had grandly promised the city more revenue than its competitors.

First, the old operator, Xerox, yanked its software from the equipment. Then the city got enamored with the idea of new technology – and decided to buy Brekford’s allegedly more accurate speed cameras.

Last April, the mayor and the Board of Estimates agreed to pay $2.2 million for 72 Brekford speed cameras – without grasping that Brekford was struggling to get its software running on the existing cameras.

Indeed, between January and March, the speed camera program was in and out of operation and total city revenues were under $500,000 – far less than the $1.5 million-a-month expected.

Problems with the software – compounded by clerical errors by city personnel assigned to the program – were causing complaints and consternation around the city.

Just six days after the city agreed to pay for the new cameras, the whole program was shut down by City Hall. Ever since, it’s been inoperative as the mayor mulled over her options.

Politics Rears Its Head

By this time, politics had entered into the equation. State legislators, among others, were casting a skeptical eye on the program, which was set up by the state as a safety measure, protecting kids in school zones, not as a sneaky way to rack up revenues from speeders on major roadways.

Faced with various pressures, the mayor and DOT did, or did not, work with Brekford to resolve the technical issues – the city says it did; Brekford’s speed camera director, Maurice R. Nelson, told the Daily Record that he had no contact with the city for months.

That is, not until the city’s lawyers cut a deal. In addition to paying Brekford $600,000 to walk away from the five-year contract, the city will be stuck with $2.2 million of Brekford equipment.

Asked about that equipment today, DOT director William M. Johnson didn’t have much to say. “They have more than one use,” he offered, and could be used for “traffic studies” but indicated that, as of now, his agency doesn’t have a clue about what to do with them.

Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, indicated that she is seeking a more voter-friendly camera program, eliminating the current “bounty system” in which Brekford would share part of the traffic fees.

No heads have rolled as a result of the botched program. Asked for her takeaway of the speed camera mess, she gave an enigmatic answer: “We had an experience that didn’t work for Baltimore, but, overall, the program works.”

To which she added – “My goal is to get a system that works. . . it’s too important to increase safety” – before exiting stage right to her mayoral office.

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