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Officials call for hearing on Baltimore accountability agency

Mark Grimes, director of CitiStat
Mark Grimes, director of CitiStat (Baltimore / Baltimore Sun)

Several elected officials are calling for closer scrutiny of CitiStat, the data-driven city agency that has been faltering in its mission to monitor the performance of the government's work.

"I'm concerned," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has begun the process of convening a hearing on CitiStat later this month. She wanted to know why groups focused on domestic violence and gun crimes have not gathered to review data since October, and that CitiStat canceled many of those meetings in 2014.

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"The CitiStat process has worked well. But it needs to be consistent to have impact," she said.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore said he was also "deeply concerned" that CitiStat has not produced results for the administration and residents. Other officials echoed that sentiment.

From a citizens' perspective, "CitiStat is not working the way it used to," said Councilwoman Helen Holton. "There is a marked increase in dissatisfaction of everyday-living, quality-of-life issues. CitiStat was known for improving the cleanliness of the city, the condition of the roads and the small things that are often not talked about until they become problematic."

CitiStat, whch has been operating in Baltimore for 15 years, was created to review data from city agencies, highlighting issues and trends that need to be addressed. The program has expanded to include some groups with members from the community and other government agencies.

A Baltimore Sun investigation this week found that 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 — including those focused on domestic violence and gun crimes — have not held data reviews for four months.

Meanwhile, the CitiStat budget doubled from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2014, to $1 million.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has continued to tout the agency's performance, said a council hearing was not necessary.

She ordered a restructuring of CitiStat 14 months ago when she forced out the agency's director and installed the Police Department's former top lawyer, Mark H. Grimes. He has said he was told to manage the department in a more collaborative manner, relying less on meetings that could become confrontational.

"Yes, [CitiStat] did work well, but it wasn't perfect," the mayor said Wednesday as Grimes stood behind her during her weekly City Hall news conference. "CitiStat should not and cannot be static."

Rawlings-Blake emphasized that times have changed since CitiStat was created and that it's essential to look at ways to improve the agency. She wants to align CitiStat more with the city's outcome-based budgeting process, which rewrites the city's budget each year based on programs' effectiveness in meeting identified goals.

"It would be missing an opportunity to get the best we can for our taxpayers," she said. "My focus has been on collaboration and breaking down silos and looking for ways to have a more effective and efficient government, and that is the focus for CitiStat under my administration."

The mayor has been talking about making CitiStat more collaborative for several years. 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.

In a recent interview, Grimes said the agency has been aligned with the outcome-based budgeting process for years. He used the phrase "OutcomeStat" but then backed away from it.

"We don't know if we're going to call it that," he said. "It's not sexy enough."

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Grimes said the changes were more "nebulous" and "nuanced," and could not say when the restructuring would be completed or how CitiStat would function then. He said he started a six-week meeting cycle in November and was waiting for Baltimore's new state's attorney to take office before reconvening the domestic violence and gun crime meetings.

Grimes and mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris said Rawlings-Blake does not measure CitiStat's effectiveness by the number of meetings. But her budgets have set such targets since 2010.

The target for the past two years was 240 meetings, according to the budget. In 2014, the agency held 89 meetings.

Grimes was unaware of the 240 target in an interview with The Sun. And Harris said the administration did not know where the target number came from because "it appears to not mathematically be possible unless someone had 20 meetings a month."

CitiStat was established by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley shortly after he was elected 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 later expanded the concept to more than a dozen agencies. He went on to become governor and now, as he contemplates a run for president, his website features a video that credits CitiStat with helping him to "change a city."

O'Malley spoke on Wednesday to the Brookings Institution about using CitiStat, and later a state version, to improve government operations. "Every two weeks, if you can picture this, on a constant and rotating basis, my team and I held CitiStat meetings with agency heads and their leadership teams in the CitiStat room on the sixth floor, with the big boards of data they brought," he said, according to a transcript.

Several cities have replicated Baltimore's model.

Most recently, Cincinnati announced the creation of a similar process. The system is being implemented by city manager Harry Black, the former Baltimore finance director who left the Rawlings-Blake administration last year. To run CincyStat, he hired Chad Kenney, who resigned as CitiStat director in January rather than accept Rawlings-Blake's attempt to transfer him to a new position.

Rawlings-Blake said that she "wanted a bigger vision" for the agency, and that there were greater opportunities around collaboration and across agencies. Grimes' legal training gives him a broad understanding of statistics and the way the system works, she said.

The legal training "is helpful in that big-picture collaborative, breaking-down-silos sort of thing," she said. "That's what I saw in Mr. Grimes."

Councilman Brandon Scott, vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he supports the mayor's effort to restructure CitiStat. But he was looking forward to a hearing to ensure the agency was adhering to its mission.

"There is something to be said for holding people accountable and having meetings" that department heads need to be prepared for, Scott said.

"Over time everything has to change," Scott said. "I don't care if they have 50 meetings or 100 meetings if they're saving us money. I want to see and make sure that the restructuring is working to do that."

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Even amid a reorganization, the agency should still be holding officials accountable, said Ferguson. "Priorities should drive budgets, budgets shouldn't drive priorities."

Clarke said the city has long relied on CitiStat "as an accountability measure for city services."

"It's an important one that we have grown used to and that has proven successful in Baltimore and in cities across the nation," she said. "[A hearing] is a way for us to check out what has been done."

Holton agreed with experts who say that CitiStat is most effective when mayors and their top staff show a commitment to the process, and she welcomed the opportunity "to have an in-depth look at how effective CitiStat is today."

"It is not the CitiStat of its heyday," said Holton, who chairs the council's budget committee. "There was a time when agency heads stood up and took notice for their weekly meetings at CitiStat and that resulted in a cleaner, greener, safer city."

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