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Baltimore agency slow to hold officials accountable

As Baltimore CitiStat agency languishes, progress on domestic violence and other problems stalls.

In speeches and documents, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continues to brag about CitiStat, the data-driven agency that has helped guide policy in Baltimore for the past 15 years. Her budget praises CitiStat's power to cut government costs — and address problems such as domestic violence and armed felons — by tracking results and holding officials accountable "not yearly, quarterly, or monthly, but week to week."

Statistics about the agency's performance tell a different story.

In 2014, the agency lost data analysis staff, failed to publish any department reports and canceled a third of the meetings that were the backbone of a process still being replicated in other U.S. cities. Some groups have not held data reviews for four months. Meanwhile, the CitiStat budget has doubled from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2014, to $1 million.

And CitiStat has ceased its weekly monitoring of many thorny issues.

For example, a domestic violence initiative that the mayor said would "identify violent offenders who terrorize their families [and] get them off the streets before they kill a loved one or community member," has stalled.

Dorothy J. Lennig, director of the House of Ruth's domestic violence legal clinic, said the group was effective while it was active. It kept law enforcement agencies aware of real-time trends and improved the delivery of protective orders against alleged abusers, she said.

"We solved some serious problems," she said. But six monthly meetings were canceled last year and the group has not met since October.

A group that participates in CitiStat's analysis of felony gun arrests also has not met since October, according to city data.

Administration officials say the entire program has been in a restructuring mode since director Mark Grimes took over in January 2014.

"Anyone who takes a new job is going to be in a transition period," said Grimes, whose $123,644 salary makes him one of Baltimore's highest-paid city employees.

The mayor told him to make CitiStat meetings more collaborative and less like "a Spanish Inquisition," Grimes said. He said he received no timeline for a restructuring and was permitted to pay a consultant to help develop the plan he presented to the mayor in August.

"Sometimes you've got to take something all the way down to the basics and then build it back up," he said. "But nobody wants to wait for it."

According to research by Harvard University and the Center for American Progress, CitiStat's tenets — such as "accurate and timely information shared by all" and "relentless follow-up and assessment" — are crucial to the program's effectiveness. So, too, is mayoral involvement at meetings, which city documents have long said are essential to holding agencies accountable.

Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Kevin Harris, said the mayor does not measure CitiStat's effectiveness by the number of meetings, though her budgets have set such targets since 2010. The target for the past two years was 240 meetings, according to the budget, and the CitiStat website states that sessions are "rarely canceled or postponed."

Harris said the mayor wants CitiStat to foster "collaboration and communication" between departments to "fix waste before it occurs."

This is not the first time top city officials have said that CitiStat is evolving. In 2010, then-Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty testified before Congress about the agency and said Rawlings-Blake was working to make it a more collaborative process.

Asked for details about current changes, Grimes shied away from the word "revamp."

"What is CitiStat evolving into? I'm very astutely aware of the history so I'm picking my words carefully," he said. "I don't want people to think I'm disrespecting the past."

The program dates to the mayoral term of Martin O'Malley, who later became governor and instituted a similar program for state government. As he explores a presidential bid, his online promotional video says that CitiStat helped him "change a city."

"It is a testament to CitiStat's value that it has remained in use and vital to several administrations and has been replicated around the country and world," O'Malley said in a statement. "Ultimately, it is up to every mayor to set their own priorities and use CitiStat to suit their own needs and time in office."

When O'Malley became mayor in 1999, he implemented the New York City Police Department's CompStat process for Baltimore police. It tracked crime data and helped police leaders deploy officers to trouble spots. It also gave the mayor a tool to hold police leaders accountable for spikes in crime.

O'Malley expanded the concept to the city's Bureau of Solid Waste, where overtime driven by rampant absenteeism was skyrocketing. With biweekly tracking and meetings at which bureau leaders were held accountable by senior mayoral staffers — and sometimes O'Malley himself — personnel costs fell significantly.

The process was extended to more than a dozen agencies.

Back then, union officials criticized the process for its confrontational tone, but they are not as concerned these days.

Michael B. Campbell, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Union, said, "Back in the heyday under O'Malley we used to hear constantly from command staff. They were always on edge [about CitiStat]. You never hear about CitiStat anymore.

"I don't think it's gone away 100 percent, but I don't think it holds the same sway it used to. From my aspect, that's a good thing."

Experts disagree. For CitiStat to be successful, city employees and agency leaders must know that the process is taken seriously by the mayor and top staff members, according to research reports from Harvard University and the Center for American Progress.

"When the CEO commits his or her time and the leadership team's time, everyone knows it's important," said Robert D. Behn, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has studied CitiStat for years.

Grimes and Harris could not say how many meetings Rawlings-Blake or her chief of staff, Kaliope Parthemos, have attended.

"The mayor wanted [Grimes] to have the opportunity to get his tweaks and adjustments up and running," Harris said. "Now that the process has started to take shape, she's going to attend more meetings."

The academic research reports also say CitiStat's success has depended on its main tenets: timely information that is shared, analysis and follow-up. Part of the process has included making CitiStat reports from city agencies available to the public online so taxpayers can better understand spending patterns and decisions. But no new reports have been posted since December 2013.

By comparison, the state government's version, StateStat, published 140 reports last year.

Grimes said the reports that have been posted online are not useful and he has been working to improve them since taking over. But he said agencies are still completing them.

He said it was unfair to gauge CitiStat's productivity based on the number of meetings, but he was not aware that his budget set a target of 240 meetings. Grimes scheduled 144 last year — monthly meetings for 10 city agencies as well as for groups working on guns and domestic violence. But he only held 89 meetings, or 37 percent of the target.

This year, CitiStat held a total of 11 meetings in January and February instead of 24.

The most frequent reason cited for a cancellation in 2014 was staffing. The number of analysts at CitiStat in 2014 ranged from five at the start of the year to three from September to November. There are now four analysts on staff, according to the city.

Grimes added that having a "dog-and-pony show" that is considered adversarial by city staff is not what the mayor wants. He said he changed the meeting schedule to a six-week cycle, instead of monthly.

Still, Rawlings-Blake has continued to tout CitiStat using the same language that O'Malley's budgets used — crediting the agency with driving the management of city government. Her budget notes the awards CitiStat has received and says the program "has produced over $300 million in positive financial benefits."

Within the CitiStat program are two broad groups that address domestic violence and armed felons: DVStat and GunStat. They differ from other parts of the program because they include several outside government agencies.

In 2011, Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of DVStat, which brought city and state law enforcement agencies together with domestic violence groups such as the House of Ruth. The goal, the mayor said, was "a stronger system-wide response to repeat abusers."

Lennig said the group successfully addressed the problem of delivering temporary protective orders. Failure to serve the orders would often result in a dismissal, endangering victims. The group recommended shifting delivery from the Police Department to the sheriff, which helped boost the delivery rate from about 30 percent to 70 percent.

"That was a huge change," Lennig said.

She has not heard from CitiStat officials in months. The last time, she said, was in October, when she was told that CitiStat wanted to wait to see who won the election for Baltimore state's attorney.

Grimes said the mayor did not want to proceed until she knew that the city prosecutor was supportive of CitiStat.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

This is not the first time under Rawlings-Blake that CitiStat has stalled.

The mayor appointed Chad Kenney as CitiStat director in 2012. At the time, the agency had not posted any reports online for two years and had not held any meetings for two months.

Under Kenney, the agency improved the closure rate of resident complaints made through the 311 system. In fiscal year 2011 the closure rate was 79 percent; in each of the next two years it hit 92 percent.

Such improvement has helped draw attention from other cities — Cincinnati announced plans in February for CincyStat. It is being started by City Manager Harry Black, the former finance director for Rawlings-Blake. It will be managed by Kenney, who resigned last year rather than accept the transfer Rawlings-Blake offered.

"We're going to replicate the Baltimore playbook," Black said.

After Kenney resigned, the mayor appointed Grimes to the Cabinet-level position.

Grimes started working for the city in 2005 and became chief of legal affairs for the Police Department in 2009, reporting to City Solicitor George Nilson. Grimes left the Police Department in the fall of 2013, but continued to work for the city solicitor.

Grimes did not shy away from questions about Citistat, and said the mayor has signed off on his vision for the agency. He said there was no document detailing the plan but that some of it was in a PowerPoint presentation he showed The Baltimore Sun.

The bulk of the presentation was produced by Results Leadership Group LLC, a Bethesda-based company that has been hired for $133,400 to help align the city's budgeting process with results Rawlings-Blake wants to see. Grimes said his agency is also aligning itself with those priorities.

"We have all kinds of issues, internal stuff I have to fix. It just takes time," Grimes said. "It ain't because I'm not busting my tail."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

mpuente@baltsun.com

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