Speed Camera Support: Grassroots or Astroturf?
Corporation that stands to benefit from more cameras aids a Facebook group advocating expansion of the network of devices in school zones.
Sarah Dennis started the Facebook group "Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools" in January because she and her friends support more speed cameras in school zones.
"I just figured I'd put it up on the web," said Dennis, a Rodgers Forge mother of two and a special education teacher for Baltimore County Public Schools.
The group quickly attracted 357 “likes” from people who support a County Council bill that, if approved Monday, will authorize an unlimited expansion of the county’s current network of 15 speed cameras.
But the grassroots effort to win council support has a powerful friend not found on its Facebook page: ACS State and Local Solutions, the company that holds the county’s speed camera contract and stands to financially benefit from the pending legislation.
Kearney O’Doherty (KO) Public Affairs, the politically connected strategy firm hired by ACS, has helped Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools communicate with County Council members and expand its base of support by establishing a separate website that sends e-mails to the elected officials and drives more “likes” to the Facebook page.
Damian O’Doherty, a KO Public Affairs partner and former county government official, told Patch in December that his political strategy firm has been working with ACS and a coalition of “educators, parents and elected officials to bring (speed cameras) to Maryland.”
When asked by text message last week about the firm’s support specifically for the group Slow Down For Baltimore County Schools, O’Doherty wrote:
"Let me be clear: KO Public Affairs is very supportive and ACS also applauds these parents. Speed cameras are very popular here in Maryland."
The firm did not respond to several additional requests for details about its efforts to support Slow Down For Baltimore County Schools.
Dennis told Patch that her neighbor, Howard Libit, set up her Facebook site’s accompanying website, slowdownbaltimorecounty.com.
Libit is chief operating officer for Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs.
A search to find the owner of the slowdownbaltimorecounty.com website turned up an anonymous registration. The site was established on Jan. 5, one day after Dennis’ Facebook page started.
The website features two elements: Visitors can either click the “like” link or they can enter their name and e-mail address and click a button that sends a letter to the council’s seven members asking for their support of cameras.
Libit is one of the 357 people who “like” Dennis’ Slow Down For Baltimore County Schools Facebook page. His Facebook profile clearly states his position with KO Public Affairs.
But there is no further indication on the group's Facebook page or the accompanying website of ACS’s or KO Public Affairs’ involvement with the grassroots group.
Unlike with disclosure rules for lobbying groups, nothing prohibits political strategy firms from working behind the scenes to align the interests of grassroots groups with those of their corporate clients.
But political observers say public awareness of such activity is important so that elected officials and citizens know when a company with a financial interest in pending legislation is backing a grassroots group with a public interest in the bill.
“It’s information people should know,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship and a professor of government and politics. “It’s not unusual for a company to try to get its way.”
Companies commonly hire strategy firms like KO Public Affairs to rally “people who are affected by the legislation” as part of a public issue campaign, he said.
Dennis said she knew Libit “worked for a public relations company" but was not aware that his firm represented ACS. Libit, she said, offered to set up the website for her after talking to her about her interest in the issue.
Dennis also said she gave Libit access to the e-mail account she set up for the Facebook page. She said she gave Libit access to the account in January and asked him "to help get the word out."
Dennis told Patch that she most recently sent e-mails from the account after the council’s work session last week.
She said she did not, however, write a Jan. 21 e-mail that one speed camera opponent said he was surprised to receive.
Kevin Dunne, a resident of West Towson and an attorney, told Patch he received a Jan. 21 e-mail message from email@example.com seeking his support for speed cameras.
"Some County Council members are unsure about passing this measure, so we need to let the Council know that we support Councilman (Tom) Quirk's proposal and safe schools," reads the e-mail Dunne was sent. "Fifteen speed cameras are not enough to protect children at the county's 170+ schools."
The e-mail then encourages Dunne and other recipients to either use a pre-written e-mail of support or visit slowdownbaltimorecounty.com to click its “send this message” button that delivers the e-mail to council members.
Dunne said he was surprised to receive such an e-mail because he personally opposes speed cameras and never signed up to receive the group's alerts. Dunne said he believes someone could have collected his e-mail address from a community directory put together by the West Towson Neighborhood Association.
Dennis said she was never given an e-mail distribution list to use and could not say if Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs had developed one for use with her e-mail address. When asked if KO Public Affairs had sent the e-mail that Dunne received, Dennis said, “You'll have to ask them."
The firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs is a political strategies firm started in 2008 by two former top advisers to state and county Democratic leaders. Steve Kearney was Gov. Martin O’Malley’s communications director and O’Doherty was a top aide to former County Executive Jim Smith until 2006.
The council approved the speed camera legislation in 2009 when Smith was county executive.
KO Public Affairs specializes in “designing and implementing successful strategies to achieve even the most complex, difficult objectives” for its clients, according to the firm's website.
ACS could benefit from the bill to expand cameras sponsored by Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, and three other council members. A council majority is expected to approve the bill at its Monday session. Only two council members have expressed opposition.
In less than a year, ACS has been paid nearly $1 million of the total $1.1 million in fines collected by the county — about 81 cents of every dollar. Last week, ACS had its contract extended for a year.
With the public's support and the new legislation, the county will be authorized to install unlimited and mobile speed cameras. A poll commissioned by KO Public Affairs, and first reported by Patch, showed in December that some 75 percent of Marylanders support speed cameras, buttressing the firm's efforts to support the devices throughout the state.
Political observers said it is common for corporations to back grassroots groups that support changes in legislation that could improve business.
In Maryland, groups like the Maryland Jockey Club and Penn National have financed anti-slots community groups — not because the companies were against expanded gaming, but because they wanted to influence where the machines were placed, said Matthew Crenson, chairman emeritus of Johns Hopkins University’s political science department.
The practice of companies helping grassroots groups "is so common they have a name for it — 'Astroturf democracy'"—as opposed to “grassroots,” said Crenson, who did not comment specifically on Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs’ involvement in the speed camera issue.
"For every public group there is a private or corporate organization that has an interest in their efforts," Crenson said. "In a way, it's good. Small public groups get access to consulting and support services they might not otherwise have. They're getting access to the political system that they wouldn't have had otherwise."
Regional Editor Doug Donovan contributed to this story.