- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.” So reads George Orwell’s seminal novel “1984.”

The editor of StopBigBrotherMd.org, Ron Ely, 38, a self-described libertarian and 16-year Montgomery County resident, argues this Orwellian reality is the inevitable direction the Montgomery County Council and the entire state of Maryland is headed with its efforts to erect speed cameras across the “Free State.”

StopBigBrotherMD.org and the citizen-driven Maryland for Responsible Enforcement (MRE) wanted to put the controversial speed-camera program up for vote by referendum.

MRE turned in its first round of signatures to the state Board of Elections in an effort to have a referendum placed on the 2010 November ballot, allowing voters to decide “yea” or “nay” for speed cameras in the same way slots and casino gaming were directly voted on in a 2008 statewide ballot.

One-third of the required signatures, nearly 18,000, had to be collected as of June 1. On Saturday, Justin Shuy, MRE’s executive director, optimistically stated, “We have collected more than 15,000 signatures, and we are confident in a final push we will exceed our goal of 18,000 signatures.”

However, the petition drive fell short by the Sunday midnight deadline with only 16,000 signatures collected, Mr. Shuy said in a release. In part, he blamed the state election guidelines, which “only guarantee the citizen petitioners a limited few weeks.”

Even if enough signatures had been validated, MRE, with the help of Web sites similar to StopBigBrotherMD.org, would have had until June 30 to submit at least 53,000 total signatures of registered voters to make the anti-speed cameras petition drive successful.

Despite the setback, Mr. Ely said that they will continue to update their Web site and provide information about speed cameras and any relevant legislation.

Mr. Ely stresses the point that a potential ballot referendum on speed cameras would have determined if there is statewide majority support for SB 277, the bill which allows use of the devices.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, signed the legislation to allow speed cameras throughout the state on May 19. The measure, which becomes effective Oct. 1, authorizes speed cameras on roadways within a half-mile of any school, on freeways (with speed limits greater than 45 mph) and in temporary “work zones,” regardless of whether workers are present.

Any jurisdiction in the state can apply for the speed-camera program as long as the local government approves it. Mr. O’Malley, vocal in his public endorsement of the bill, said on WTOP-FM radio, “The overriding goal of the speed-camera program in construction work and school zones is not to catch speeders. It is to get drivers to slow down.”

But Mr. Ely said there’s a growing trend of local governments to clamp down on ordinary activities while ignoring more serious crimes. Further, he said, local jurisdictions are more aggressively handing out civil violations as a way of collecting non-tax revenue, rather than making budget cuts.

“The incentive is to write bigger and bigger revenue goals into every year’s budget, and then do whatever is needed to meet that quota,” Mr. Ely said.

He describes the cameras as a kind of mass surveillance, targeting the kind of mistakes people make on a day-to-day basis. “I don’t think people really want to be penalized for every mistake they make.”

StopBigBrotherMDd.org cautions, “This site does not condone speeding or reckless driving. Drivers should always make safety their first priority. We support responsible and strict enforcement of traffic laws by human officials.” However, it also says, “Automated traffic enforcement is rapidly expanding in the state of Maryland, to the chagrin of residents who value their civil liberties, oppose unchecked government power, or reject backdoor taxes. The public needs to act as a watchdog or the abuses will run rampant.”

StopBigBrotherMD.org was launched in March 2008. In six months, a link to Google Maps was integrated to show locations of known fixed and mobile camera sites in Maryland and the District. The site has received more than 32,000 unique page views. Locations are released by the county and augmented by updates that come in from observant members of the public.

Mr. Ely maintains that it is his role, as a private-citizen monitor, to relay information to the general public on the latest happenings in the ongoing battle over the future of speed cameras in Maryland.

Currently only Montgomery County is operating speed cameras in Maryland. In what can be seen as a growing regional divide between Washington and Baltimore’s urbanized suburbs and the more rural parts of the state, not all counties are expressing the same enthusiastic propensity for erecting cameras within their county limits.

According to the Montgomery County Gazette, Kent County Board of Commissioners President Roy W. Crow and Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr, both Republicans, have expressed opposition to speed cameras.

“We just don’t think it’s really necessary,” Mr. Crow told the Gazette. “We don’t have many of those high-speed areas, and we have enough [officers] on patrol for those areas. To me, it’s a money grab for jurisdictions.”

Mr. Barr told the Gazette, “We’re a rural, conservative community, and most people feel they don’t need ‘big daddy’ in Annapolis staring down on them all the time.”

But state Delegate Henry “Hank” Heller, a Democrat who represents District 19 in central Montgomery County and who coached junior varsity football at Wheaton High School from 1966 to 1977, told The Washington Times that he has seen the transformation of Montgomery County into an urbanized area.

Mr. Heller, who moved to Montgomery County when he was in elementary school, has witnessed the county’s population swell from nearly 70,000 in the 1950s to the current 2008 U.S. census estimate of 950,860.

When he was coaching at Wheaton High School, Mr. Heller said motorists would “fly” down bordering Randolph Road, making crossing the street increasingly treacherous for students leaving after-school activities and facing the dangers of rush-hour traffic.

With the placement of a speed camera on the 3300 block of Randolph Road, eastbound and westbound, Mr. Heller said, he has noticed that people have slowed down, resulting in a much safer road.

He became a believer in the value of speed cameras after receiving a debriefing from Montgomery County Police, who reported that “85 percent of people going through red-light cameras don’t repeat,” Mr. Heller said.

He does not see a larger conspiracy behind the push for more speed cameras in Montgomery County and across the state. “For those that call it ‘Big Brother,’ I feel sorry for them. If people are upset, they can vote people out of office,” he said.

StopBigBrotherMD.org has a comprehensive “Maryland Speed Camera Legislative Score Card,” which highlights House of Delegates and state Senate votes on all bills pertaining to speed cameras.

“If you think it is an important issue - for or against - you should know how who you voted for has voted. The information is already public, but we’ve presented it in a readable fashion,” Mr. Ely said of the Web site.

He suggests that if members of the public object to something lawmakers enact, and they have an opportunity to address their grievance politically but don’t, laws are enacted that are out of touch with public sentiment.

“What is happening now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Ely said. “This is not about a few $40 tickets now. It’s about 10 years from now, when getting six or more tickets every year with no way to contest them has become the price of normal everyday driving.”

• John H. Muller, a Montgomery County resident, is a 2007 graduate of George Washington University with a degree in public policy.

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