By David Kidwell, Chicago Tribune reporter
6:54 AM CST, November 28, 2012
Even as Chicago prepares to test speed cameras next week, problems in Baltimore's 3-year-old camera program are raising questions about one of the bidders for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's controversial proposal that could target speeders in school and park zones over half the city.
Xerox State & Local Solutions Inc., one of two firms selected by the Emanuel administration to test cameras in Chicago, has come under scrutiny in recent months for faulty equipment and thousands of erroneous tickets issued in Baltimore over the past three years.
Judges sided with motorists in more than half of the contested tickets examined in a Nov. 18 investigative report by The Baltimore Sun, which like the Chicago Tribune is owned by Tribune Co. The report followed months of complaints and controversy about Baltimore's program, which is under review by a mayoral task force. The Xerox firm, which is owned by the photocopier giant, is being replaced by another contractor in January.
Xerox officials said its problems in Baltimore account for less than 1 percent of all the tickets issued under the program, and that the cameras have slowed down motorists and reduced accidents.
"We strive for perfection, but on occasion, errors do occur," Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said. "When any type of issue arises in the program, we work closely with the municipality to quickly resolve it in a manner that least inconveniences the public, reflecting our strong focus and commitment to customer service."
Emanuel administration officials refused to answer questions about their bidding process this week, including whether they considered the firm's performance in Baltimore. City officials will not even confirm the names of the two companies selected for the testing phase of the camera rollout, citing a need for confidentiality because of the "ongoing procurement process."
The city announced last week that it would test speed cameras at four Chicago locations, to begin Monday and go through Jan. 3. No citations will be issued during the test period.
"A variety of factors determined the test locations, including location within a safety zone, frequency of speed related crashes, and ease of accessibility to power," the city said in a news release issued the day before Thanksgiving. "The systems will be removed after the evaluation period."
Sources involved in the process have confirmed that Xerox and American Traffic Solutions Inc. will each get to test their equipment at two of the locations. Workers were installing equipment at one of the locations assigned to Xerox on Tuesday.
American Traffic Solutions is not without its own controversy. In 2011, officials in Canada returned about $13 million in speeding fines issued by a single faulty camera. The cameras were installed by ATS, but the company blamed the problem on the local government that maintained the cameras.
Last month, a third top contender for the lucrative speed camera contract was disqualified by Emanuel after the Tribune disclosed allegations of corruption in the city's 10-year-old red-light program. Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which has helped run the $300 million red-light program since its inception in 2003, was eliminated from the bidder list after it acknowledged its failure to report internal allegations of corruption in the Chicago program involving the city official who oversaw the contract.
Those revelations have prompted an ongoing investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson into the close relationship between Redflex and the city official who oversaw its contract.
Redflex's Australian parent company, trying to salvage the red-light contract with the city, has hired the powerhouse Chicago law firm Sidley Austin to conduct its own investigation. Heading that probe is former Inspector General David Hoffman, who is now a partner at the firm and a mayoral appointee on Emanuel's infrastructure trust board.
City officials, likewise, do not want the Redflex controversy to slow down the mayor's timetable for getting speed cameras up and running. Emanuel is counting on raising at least $20 million from tickets issued to motorists by speed cameras in 2013 to help balance his budget. The mayor has insisted the cameras are for the safety of children and denied critics' claims that it is simply a city money grab.
The cameras, including mobile units, can be placed within one-eighth of a mile of public schools and parks around the city.
Nine potential bidders answered the city's request for proposals, and early questions about how the program would work were centered on a quirk in Illinois law that says children must be visibly present before school zone limits can be enforced. Vendors were stymied by the need to collect photographs not only of a speeding car and its license tag but of children within 300 feet of the violation.
A spokesman for ATS said Tuesday that the resolution so far is simple: School zone citations will be issued only when children are in the photographs. If children cannot be seen in the photos, normal speed limits will be in force.
There will be two test sites on the North Side: Warren Park in the 6500 block of North Western Avenue and Near North Montessori School in the 1400 block of West Division Street. There also will be two test spots on the South Side: McKinley Park in the 2200 block of West Pershing Road and Dulles Elementary School in the 6300 block of South King Drive.
In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formed a task force to examine the program, the city moved to oust Xerox as its vendor in favor of another company the city says offered a higher return, and officials began an internal review surrounding one camera that persistently produced erroneous tickets. Many of the complaints came from commercial trucking companies that claimed their drivers were repeatedly cited in error, and also that little was done to resolve the issue despite months of repeated complaints.
As part of its investigation of those complaints, The Sun used video time stamps to determine the speeds of vehicles as they passed through the camera's path in eight cases, and then compared them to the speeds listed on the citations. In each case, the newspaper said, the speeds on the citations were overstated and did not warrant a ticket.
Xerox spokesman Gilligan told The Sun that the company conducted an investigation of the camera complaints and "determined that the speeds recorded for an extremely limited number of high-profile vehicles were excessive due to radar effects, most likely reflection off the large metallic surfaces of these vehicles."
"Unfortunately, in these instances, the radar effects were not identified due to human error," Gilligan told the Baltimore newspaper.
Both Xerox and Baltimore officials defend the speed camera program as an effective tool in slowing down motorists and preventing crashes. They said 6,000 erroneous tickets out of 1.6 million issued is minuscule. But most tickets are simply paid by mail and never challenged, records show, meaning it is impossible to determine how many more erroneous tickets might have been issued and paid.
The city acknowledged that during the life of the program, only 19,689 camera-issued speeding tickets were challenged in court. Of those, judges threw out the ticket in 1,897 cases. The Sun reporters reviewed 415 cases overseen by five judges and found that judges had sided with motorists in more than half of those cases.
Xerox Corp., best known for its onetime domination of the photocopier market, entered the speed camera business in 2009 when it acquired Affiliated Computer Services Inc. Prior to Xerox taking it over, Affiliated Computer Services had been plagued by scandals involving its camera programs.
Chicago's longtime red-light camera vendor, Redflex, is now under scrutiny for its close relationship to the former city official who oversaw the contract since it began.
John Bills, who retired in 2011 as the city's managing deputy commissioner of transportation, took a job soon thereafter as a consultant to a Redflex-funded traffic safety group. Bills is also under investigation for accepting a luxury hotel stay from a Redflex executive in 2010 and for his longtime friendship with a Chicago man who got a job with Redflex and collected $576,000 in commissions plus $50,000 annually to be a Redflex customer service representative.
Bills has denied any wrongdoing. Redflex was disqualified from pursuing the speed camera contract because of the hotel stay and because the company failed to report to the city that one of its own vice presidents had made internal allegations of improprieties against Bills in 2010. The company said it hired a Chicago law firm to conduct an "exhaustive" investigation of those allegations, and found them to be without merit. It acknowledges however, that neither Bills nor its customer service representative were interviewed.
Redflex's current contract on the city's red-light program expires Jan. 13, and the city has made no move to replace the longtime vendor, which has collected nearly $100 million in fees from the city since 2003.
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