(Small) moments in the use of passive voice, to obscure government workers’ incompetence

Sort of a non sequitur in an article about firefighter overtime from the Washington Post (emphasis ours):  “District revenue from traffic cameras fell off precipitously during the second half of the last budget year because of failures by city workers to keep the systems running.  Amid an effort to transfer more maintenance duties from contractors to city crews, some red-light and speed cameras and other traffic-control devices stopped working.  In some cases, batteries in the systems went dead, [D.C. City Council Chairman Phil] Mendelson said.”

This throw-away passage refers to another budget challenge in the local Washington, D.C. government that is not the subject of the article.  We can suppose that the inference is clear, though it’s an odd use of a semi-passive construction to suggest that the cameras “stopped working” and batteries “went dead.”  To co-opt James Taranto, why do bad things always happen to the city government workers?

The Post has extensively covered the roll-out of traffic cameras in the city, but seems to have never previously reported on the in-sourcing of maintenance.  A September 2014 article reported that revenue from this boondoggle was lower than projected, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor, “for a variety of reasons, including delays in deploying some new devices, higher speed limits on some streets and more motorists obeying the law.” The spokeswoman went on, “And we don’t view any of this as a bad thing.  As we’ve said all along:  the purpose of automated traffic enforcement is to improve public safety and save lives, not to raise money.”  Naturally, the Post agreed in an editorial, “Automated Cameras Mean Safer Streets in the District,” despite many studies in different jurisdictions showing that cameras do not even improve, and may even harm, safety.

Any big-government skeptic assumes that the main purpose of the cameras is to further tax citizens. So it’s not surprising that the Post would tread lightly in questioning the cameras’ effectiveness or government workers’ competence.  Not surprisingly, the D.C. inspector general found that the abuse of the system runs through the entire traffic-ticket value chain (i.e., racket). Perhaps the scandal of city workers’ dereliction in maintenance is worth some coverage in its own right?


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