By Rachel O’Brien
Deputy Policy Editor, OpenTheBooks.com
Some officials in the City of Baltimore get taxpayer-funded vehicles.
We don’t know which ones because the city has yet to produce records for our June 2 Maryland Public Information Actrequest.
But we do know that in 2021, the City Council spent $51,332 on vehicles from Acme Auto Leasing, LLC, according to the city’s spending checkbook provided to OpenTheBooks.com via a MPIA request.
It makes sense that the public would want to know whether the officials driving those vehicles — whether it’s the city council members, the mayor or the state’s attorney — are obeying driving laws.
We filed an MPIA request with the Department of Transportation for any red-light, speed or parking tickets that 40 city officials received for vehicles owned or driven by them (including department heads, the police commissioner, fire chief, zoning board members and more).
Our request was denied.
“Citations produced by the City’s traffic cameras are only permitted for release by the Public Information Act under specific circumstances including where a requesting party is suspected of committing a traffic violation or was issued a citation for speeding on a roadway, speeding within a construction zone, violating required vehicular height requirements, or for committing a general traffic infraction” was the response from the Baltimore City Law Department.
That response is problematic for two reasons.
First, the denial of "citations produced by the City’s traffic cameras" doesn’t account for parking tickets, which aren’t issued by traffic cameras.
Secondly, it reads as if only a person who received a ticket can ask for their own files and only under these “specific circumstances,” which are not at all specific but cover every way a ticket could have been issued.
When we pointed out that "citations produced by the City’s traffic cameras" doesn't account for the parking tickets and asked again for them, the city’s Law Department spokesperson said, “There will not be a production of any records. The explanation provided covers all citations and tickets.”
But it doesn’t. The spokesperson also didn’t respond to our questions about the circular language used in the denial.
What we’re asking for isn’t breaking any new ground.
In 2017, The Washington Post reported on exactly this issue with Prince George’s County government officials.
The newspaper received public records that showed the government spends more than $110,000 a year on take-home vehicles or auto allowances for its officials.
The records also showed that between 2011 and 2016, council members driving take-home cars had at least 15 collisions, and received at least 107 speeding, missed toll and parking citations.
So why won’t the City of Baltimore produce these records? What are they trying to hide?
The public has the right to know whether their officials are receiving these tickets and whether they’re paying fines, especially if they’re happening while driving vehicles paid for by the taxpayer.
About one-third of the red-light tickets go unpaid in Baltimore, we reported based on data from an MPIA request. Are any of those tickets issued to city officials? We don’t know because the city won’t tell us.
Read below — The Dept. of Transportation's response to our request for comment:
“It is the policy of the BCDOT to release information pertaining to automated enforcement citations only to the persons suspected of committing a traffic violation. This includes those who were issued a citation for speeding on a roadway, speeding within a construction zone, violating vehicular height requirements, or for committing a general traffic or parking infraction. This policy was established as a continuation of other provisions under the MPIA which deny access to motor vehicle records in order to protect the privacy of vehicle owners and their personal information contained on such citations. Since your MPIA request asks for these types of records pertaining to various city officials, we cannot release this information.
It is also the general policy of BCDOT that any agency employees who receive automated enforcement citations and/or other general traffic or parking citations while operating a city-owned vehicle be responsible for paying the fines on their own accord, or face possible disciplinary action.”