Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Calling City Hall

Local GovernmentStarbucks Corp.

As a financial matter, perhaps it's no big deal that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas a $562.39 telephone sitting on her desk. It and the five other touch screen, video phones the city bought recently amount to 0.0001 percent of Baltimore's $2.8 billion budget. Their cost wouldn't be enough to keep open a fire company or a recreation center or to roll back city property taxes. But as a symbol, the phone is a problem for City Hall. It contributes to residents' suspicions that their tax dollars are being squandered, and it makes the mayor look extravagantly out of touch with the concerns of most of her constituents. The way she has responded to questions about it has only made things worse.

Comptroller Joan Pratt made an issue of the phones this week, alleging that they were purchased illegally and that the involvement of the mayor's office in the procurement of telephones at all was a usurpation of her long standing authority. The fancy phones, which were purchased at the same time as a few dozen more mundane models that make calls over the Internet rather than telephone lines, were lumped into a broader information technology contract in a way that Ms. Pratt says avoided public review and scrutiny. Furthermore, Ms. Pratt says that it has been her office that has handled all phone purchases for the city dating back to the 1940s.

That last complaint amounts to a bureaucratic turf war, not something that is of overwhelming concern to those outside of city government. Given that the city is considering a switch to voice over Internet technology — a move that, in the long run, could save millions a year — having the Mayor's Office of Information Technology handle the phones may be more effective. The allegation about procurement violations is being investigated by city Inspector General David N. McClintock, and given his track record of independence, we trust he will get to the bottom of things.

It is not too early, however, to render a judgment on the politics of the matter. The mayor's office insists that the six Cadillac phones were purchased as something of a pilot project within a pilot project in an effort to determine whether their video technology might be useful in city government. They were given to the mayor, city council president, a deputy mayor, his assistant and two workers in the information technology department. What need those people — who all work within about 100 yards of each other — would have for video conferencing is a mystery. Even if the technology were more broadly distributed throughout city government, what would be the point? Do city employees need to see each other to get their business done? And can they not be bothered to get up from their desks?

When confronted by Ms. Pratt, the mayor could easily have put this matter to rest by saying that, upon inspection, the video phones were fancier than the city needs but that early indications are that a broader rollout of more basic Internet phones would save the city money. Instead, she icily sipped her coffee while Ms. Pratt accused her administration of breaking procurement law and wasting money. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has raised taxes and cut services repeatedly in the last few years, and she needs to take every opportunity possible to reassure residents that she is even more careful with their money than they are. The message she sent instead was, let them drink Starbucks.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Local GovernmentStarbucks Corp.
  • City Hall disconnect
    City Hall disconnect

    Our view: Spat between the mayor and comptroller has hindered Baltimore's ability to switch to a new phone system that will save taxpayers money

  • City Hall phones: Does the mayor have a plan?

    I don't doubt that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake's purchase of new phones was legal ("City Hall phone wars," June 26). What I don't know, and what the mayor has not told me, is how exactly this purchase is going to benefit the citizens of Baltimore.

  • Inspector general probing mayor's purchase of high-tech video phones

    Inquiry sparked by comptroller's allegations, which mayor says are exaggerated

  • Media message unfair to missing child
    Media message unfair to missing child

    I was relieved to hear that the missing 12-year-old Baltimore County girl was found and returned to her worried parents. Yet I still remain perplexed at the way her disappearance was reported. Seemingly in the same breath that news outlets reported that the child was missing, they also reported...

  • Obama's immigration plan offends legal immigrants
    Obama's immigration plan offends legal immigrants

    On March 17, 2014, in response to my letter addressed to the White House about my immigration case, President Barack Obama wrote back in an email message: "America's immigration system is badly broken, and I know many people are hurting because of it."

  • Public policy schools more relevant than ever
    Public policy schools more relevant than ever

    Voters who went to the polls on Nov. 4 considerably changed the landscape of American government and politics. The shift from a somewhat divided government in Washington to one in which the legislative branch is in the hands of conservatives and the executive branch is in the hands of a liberal...

  • The police are snooping
    The police are snooping

    If you're a criminal and use a cellphone to communicate with your partners in crime, there's something you probably should know: The police may not only have your number, they may be able to pinpoint your location to within a few feet wherever you are and find you even if you're not talking...

  • Bill Cosby allegations [Poll]
    Bill Cosby allegations [Poll]