Another December, another speed-camera debacle in Baltimore.
January held the promise of a new beginning. In the wake of some fine investigative reporting by The Baltimore Sun, the city had parted ways with one vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, and was starting fresh with an Anne Arundel County suitor, Brekford Corp.
Then the relationship began to unravel like a Kardashian marriage, only faster. By February, Brekford had talked the city into spending $2.2 million on new cameras. By April, all bets were off — and so were the cameras. And in the fall, while the city insisted (to The Sun) that the two sides were working things out, Brekford confided (to The Daily Record) that they hadn’t even spoken in months.
This week, the city agreed to buy out the rest of Brekford’s five-year contract for $600,000 and chalk up it to experience, or, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put it, “institutional knowledge.”
What, then, have we learned?
* If something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. The city’s stated goal for the speed-camera system was to increase public safety, not revenue; in fact, the mayor said she expected revenue to go down each year, ideally to zero, as drivers adopted safer habits.
Instead, revenue went up — a lot. For 2012, under Xerox, revenue was expected to fall about 10 percent; it rose about 15 percent. If the city couldn’t hear or didn’t believe the drivers’ complaints of excessive ticketing, that extra $4 million in its pocket was proof that something had gone awry.
* Bounty systems don’t pay. The mayor has promised that the next system, whatever it may be, will not tie the vendor’s compensation to the number of tickets issued. That’s a good thing. Whether or not it’s legal to pay contractors by the ticket, the system creates an incentive to issue more tickets. If the city is serious about reducing revenue to zero, a bounty system is not the way to do it.
* Electronic devices are not infallible. Love of technology may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of much delusion. Technology can save us time; technology can save us effort. But technology cannot save us. For the third speed-camera contract, assume things will go wrong and build in meaningful controls — technological and human — to monitor and correct errors as they occur.
* Humans are not infallible, either. Be realistic about the time, training and human capital required. Use what you’ve learned about what can go wrong, assume that the system will have a few more surprises and build in the flexibility and backup required to deal with them.
* Finally, be transparent. Yes, the settlement with Brekford has a non-disparagement clause. That’s fine. We have no interest in hearing you disparage Brekford. Tell us, instead, what your role was in these successive failures. More to the point, tell us what you can do — what you will do — to ensure we’re not in the same predicament for a third time a year from now.
December is a fine month for rituals, but throwing another speed-camera contract on the fire should not be one of them.