You could be excused for having missed a couple of sentences about the Baltimore County government's phone system that were tucked into a paragraph about information technology upgrades in the middle of Executive Kevin Kamenetz's budget address this month, but Baltimore City residents might find them quite interesting. It seems that the county plans during the next year to complete the transition from traditional, analog phones to Voice over Internet Protocol models, which will ensure that all employees have their own direct-dial numbers, voice mail and caller ID. Oh, and it's expected to save the county $604,000 a year. It's a smart thing to do, and the county is doing it, no fuss, no muss.
Meanwhile, this week at City Hall, Baltimore's years-long failure to replace a much more antiquated phone system with VoIP was again on display with further bickering between Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration and Comptroller Joan Pratt. It has been almost two years since the mayor blocked a proposed contract with IBM for VoIP services that the comptroller had developed, and the two sides appear as far apart as ever — even disagreeing about how far apart they are.
City Finance Director Henry Black said in an interview Thursday that the two sides had made tremendous progress over recent months in terms of lowering the tension between the administration and the comptroller's office. He said they had gotten past fights about what form the system ought to take and were focused solely on finding a cheaper solution. He predicted the whole matter could be wrapped up in 30-45 days.
Ms. Pratt said in an interview Thursday that any such progress is news to her. She blasted the administration for "having meeting after meeting after meeting with no goal of a solution in mind, no resolution." She referred to one proposal the administration had made as "a joke" and another as "not a solution for Baltimore City."
Mr. Black said the proposal Ms. Pratt is currently pursuing — effectively, an amended version of the original IBM contract from 2012 — wouldn't save the city money for years at best and might actually cost it more. In fact, he cast doubt on whether VoIP could save Baltimore money at all, saying previous infighting between the two offices had prevented him from getting any kind of baseline data from which to make predictions.
Ms. Pratt said the latest idea the mayor's administration had offered would have cost the city an additional $13.3 million over five years. She again questioned whether the mayor was surreptitiously installing phones without her involvement.
The saga is by now so epic that it may be impossible to accurately mete out blame for the impasse. Should we fault a mayor whose administration sought to replace the phones on the sly and concealed the fact from Ms. Pratt and others? Or do we blame a comptroller who accepted free legal help from the Law Offices of Peter Angelos to sue the city, the propriety of which is now the subject of an ethics case, for which the city just shelled out $2,000 to hire another lawyer for Ms. Pratt?
Indeed, there is plenty of blame to go around, but in the final analysis, the buck has to stop with the mayor. It was she and her appointees on the Board of Estimates who blocked approval of a $7.4 million contract Ms. Pratt's office had developed with IBM to switch the city over to VoIP on the grounds that the "city's technology professionals" had advised her that a new phone system could be installed "in less time and with less cost." That was on July 11, 2012, meaning the city has blown through 20 months and, by Ms. Pratt's estimate, $8 million in lost savings because a $7.4 million contract was too expensive and too slow.
The comptroller's control of the city phone system has a long history, dating back to the 1940s, but it is a role rooted in tradition, not law. If the mayor has a better and cheaper plan for implementing VoIP than the one Ms. Pratt has advanced, she should tell the public what it is. The mayor has the power to put an end to this nonsense at any time she wants by doing openly and transparently what her Office of Information Technology tried to do secretly two years ago. If she's worried about offending Ms. Pratt, well, it's a bit too late for that. But if, two years after blocking Ms. Pratt's proposal, the mayor doesn't have a better idea, she should get out of the way.
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