By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
An effort to halt Maryland's new speed camera law before it takes effect this fall faces its first hurdle this week, as organizers scramble to gather enough signatures, through both old-fashioned legwork and new technologies, to put the issue before voters next year.
The grass-roots group Maryland for Responsible Enforcement is seeking to take advantage of a provision in the state Constitution that allows citizens to petition just-passed laws to referendum. The law being targeted would authorize speed cameras in work zones and near schools across the state. The first third of roughly 53,000 required signatures must be turned in by midnight May 31 for the campaign to continue. If the effort succeeds, the speed camera law will be suspended until voters get a say in November 2010, when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is up for reelection.
The group, spearheaded by a pair of Montgomery County activists and aided by the Maryland Republican Party and one of the state's most colorful lobbyists, is employing some of the tactics of previous petition drives: trolling for signatures at Metro stops, community events and other places people tend to gather.
But it is also seeking to leverage the power of the Internet to a degree not seen in previous Maryland petition drives, which tend to fail as often as they succeed.
Petition forms, for example, can be downloaded directly from the group's Web site.
And organizers have set up a page on Facebook, the social networking site, to recruit fellow Marylanders who see speed cameras as an intrusion into privacy and a money grab by local jurisdictions. As of yesterday, more than 3,200 members had signed up on the page, which seeks contributions of 100 signatures apiece.
"We are trying to utilize the technology that's out there to help with the effort," said Justin Shuy, the group's executive director. "Facebook was a good way to reach out to people."
Under current law, Montgomery is the only Maryland jurisdiction in which speed cameras are allowed. They are also used by the District but not allowed in Virginia.
The statewide law the Maryland legislature passed last month is scheduled to take effect in October. Signed last week by O'Malley, it will allow the state to station cameras near highway work areas. Counties and towns will be able to decide whether to have the cameras in half-mile zones around schools. Drivers seen traveling at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit can expect a ticket of up to $40.
The measure, which barely survived a series of Senate votes, has been hailed by proponents as a common-sense way to deter speeding and save lives without having to increase more costly police patrols.
"Speed cameras actually have an extremely salutary impact on people's conduct in places where people shouldn't be speeding," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which had jurisdiction over the legislation. "It's a useful tool."
Frosh said he was uncertain whether the petition drive will succeed but is hopeful that it will fail.
After signing the bill, O'Malley told reporters that "most people that I talk to believe that we all should be encouraged to slow down on our highways." But the governor said he was "agnostic" as to whether voters should get a say on the issue, adding, "I don't really care one way or another."
Among those bringing more zeal to the fight is Bruce Bereano, one of the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis who for years has been a vocal opponent of red-light cameras and speed cameras.
Bereano, who admittedly shuns computers, is employing more old-fashioned methods in his alliance with Maryland for Responsible Enforcement.
He recently showed up in District Court in Montgomery on a day when a docket was reserved for those contesting speed-camera citations from the county, for example.
"It was what I call a target-rich environment," Bereano said, adding that he has found the anti-speed camera petition an "easy sell" because so many people have a viscerally negative reaction to the devices.
The state Republican Party, which has been struggling for visibility in Democratic-dominated Maryland, has also joined the populist effort.
The party's state central committee recently passed a resolution supporting Shuy's group. But most of the petition work has been directed by local GOP groups, said Justin Ready, executive director of the state party. This is the time of the year when county GOP chapters hold annual fundraising events.
"Every Republican event we have, we've been pushing that petition as hard as we can," Ready said.
Daniel Zubairi, a Bethesda businessman and former Republican congressional candidate, is the other driving force behind Maryland for Responsible Enforcement. But Shuy said the group has worked to build a broad coalition crossing party lines and demographic groups.
If the group meets its first target for signatures by May 31, it will have until the end of June to reach the overall goal of roughly 53,000. That number is based on a formula that requires signatures of 3 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.
The last successful petition drive in Maryland was in 2006, when a group blessed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) sought to derail a recently passed early voting law. The issue became moot when the law was declared unconstitutional.
In 2005, a conservative group failed to meet the first deadline for signatures on four bills expanding gay and lesbian rights. Two of those were vetoed by Ehrlich; the others became law.
Past petition efforts have been hampered in part by technical requirements. Signatures, for example, must exactly match a name as it appears on the voting rolls. Even a slight variation disqualifies it.
Bereano said he is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for holding off the speed camera law.
"It's just going to be an issue of manpower, getting the petitions around and doing it correctly," he said.