Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has responded to Comptroller Joan Pratt's allegations of impropriety in its purchase of a 80 voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones by focusing on three questions: Does the mayor have the power to administer an overhaul of the city government's phone system, which has traditionally been in the comptroller's purview; was the contract under which the phones were purchased competitively bid; and did the city have the legal authority under that contract to purchase the phones? An opinion issued by City Solicitor George Nilson on Friday provides a plausible argument that the answer to all three questions is yes. But the mayor's explanation falls short of answering another crucial question: Even if the way the phones was purchased was legal, was it wise?
The first legal question Mr. Nilson answered is fairly clear-cut. Although the comptroller's office has purchased city government phone equipment and managed the network since the 1920s, there is no specific delegation of authority over phones in the city charter and never has been. It appears to be a matter of custom rather than law.
The phones were purchased under a standing contract the Mayor's Office of Information Technology has for computer hardware and software from Digicon Corp.'s Rockville office. Mr. Nilson reports, and city records confirm, that the contract was competitively bid (there were 16 bidders, several of which got pieces of the work). The original award was in 2006, and the contract has been renewed since then. However, the germane question is not whether the contract was competitively bid but whether it was the appropriate vehicle for this purchase.
The request for bids for the contract goes into great detail about the types of computer and network hardware that the city might need to purchase, but telephones are not among them. Mr. Nilson argues that VoIP devices are more akin to a computer peripheral than a traditional telephone and therefore can be considered to fall under the terms of this contract. And even if the purchase isn't among the core requirements set out in the bid documents, Mr. Nilson says, its value is such a small portion of the overall contract as to be unobjectionable — though this point is in dispute, as the administration says it amounts to $55,000, but Ms. Pratt argues that the total value of phone-related purchases was $659,000 or nearly 20 percent of the total contract's value. Nonetheless, given that the devices operate on completely different technology than traditional phones, Mr. Nilson's conclusion is not unreasonable.
But legalities aside, was this the best way to handle the matter? Baltimore is wise to begin a transition to VoIP, which has the potential to save the city millions a year. And given that the new system would run on the computer network managed by the mayor's information technology office, it likely makes more sense for that department to take charge rather than leaving it up to the comptroller's office, whose expertise lies in a different technology.
However, the Rawlings-Blake administration's foray into this area came at the same time that Ms. Pratt's office was seeking bids for a major VoIP contract — and the mayor knew it. There was an acknowledgment of the comptroller's office's plan to do so in Ms. Rawlings-Blake's budget for the current fiscal year. This issue blew up a few weeks ago when the mayor moved to block consideration of a contract Ms. Pratt brought to the Board of Estimates as part of that process. The lack of coordination between the two offices appears to have led to some unnecessary duplication of efforts among city agencies.
The mayor's office has described its purchase of VoIP phones as a pilot project to see whether they would work properly on the city's network and whether the Mayor's Office of Information Technology could handle the matter more effectively than the comptroller. That is where the logic of Mr. Nilson's point about the minimal size of this phone purchase begins to break down. The purpose of this exercise was not to buy a few pieces of computer hardware but as the first stage in what would eventually become a multi-million-dollar purchase of communications equipment. The risk in handling the matter through an existing hardware contract rather than holding a new round of bidding is that the city could be providing an advantage to one company (in this case, Digicon) or to one particular kind of VoIP technology when the time comes to make a much larger purchase.
Mr. Nilson's opinion makes a substantial case that what the mayor's office did was legal. But the expenditure of city taxpayers' money deserves to be held to a higher standard of scrutiny than that, and we encourage Ms. Pratt and the city inspector general to continue asking tough questions to make sure that when Baltimore upgrades its phones, it gets the best deal possible.