Courting dissent at City Hall

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Someone pass the popcorn, there's a new legal drama unfolding at City Hall — Law & Order: Special Municipal Unit.

You might have seen the news that Joan Pratt, comptroller, is suing Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayor, or at least, her technology office. Not to be outdone — because he never is when it comes to governmental hijinks — Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway has filed notice that he will sue the city over bad charges on water bills.


And who knows, by the time you read this, maybe the trend will have spread to Annapolis, where Mayor Joshua Cohen recently busted a man allegedly relieving himself from the third floor of a parking garage. Is this not a job for Barry Glazer, the TV pitchman and self-proclaimed defender of the urinated-upon?

Back in Baltimore, though, the aggrieved Pratt bypassed Glazer in favor of the law offices of Peter G. Angelos, as his more discreet ads put it. That would be the same Angelos who not just owns the Orioles but is known to go to court over such personal injury matters as asbestos, mesothelioma and non-downtown development projects.


And now the City Hall telephone system.

I'm probably like most citizens in that I didn't think I had to worry about the kind of phone system city employees use. I'm just happy if they pick up the phone when I call, or return previous calls I've made.

But, as The Sun has been reporting for months now, Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have been battling over who gets to overhaul the phone system. For some reason, as Pratt was soliciting bids for the upgrade — her office has traditionally handled phone matters — Rawlings-Blake's office was going ahead and buying equipment to do the same thing. And, according to an inspector general's report, the mayor's administration was misleading other city officials about what it was doing.

Once the inspector general issued his report, it seems like this whole brouhaha could have been settled quite simply: with, um, a phone call or two. Instead, both sides seemed to dig in their heels even more.

Pratt decided to communicate via lawsuit, seeking an injunction to prevent the mayor from installing a new phone system. Your guess is as good as mine: Was this the only way she thought she could get Rawlings-Blake's attention? Or is this some sort of proxy war for Angelos, who has clashed with Rawlings-Blake in the past and now is providing free legal services to Pratt in one of those cases of the enemy of my enemy is my friend?

Meanwhile, Conaway says he is going to file a class-action suit over the city's water bill fiasco — thousands of residents have been overcharged, even as the city has failed to collect millions of dollars in delinquent bills from corporations and other groups. Lord knows where this is all going, but it sure will be interesting to see the clerk of the court on the other side of the counter filing a suit in his own courthouse.

He'll surely not hurt for clients — now even city schools are saying they've been overcharged for water, The Sun reported Friday. One school even saw its bill jump from three figures to six. To its credit, the city has been refunding residential overcharges, and says it's continuing to work to correct the problems. Whether Conaway's threatened suit will speed that up remains to be seen.

In Pratt's case, after months of impasse, she did indeed just meet with the mayor's chief technology officer. It's a start, although it didn't really seem that either side was budging much.


As you can imagine, Pratt was noncommittal on a proposal presented by Rawlings-Blake's tech officer: to create a new "communications governance committee" to oversee the phone system. Of the 12 members, nine would work for the mayor and three would report to the comptroller, the kind of imbalance you see elsewhere in city government — such as the Board of Estimates, the spending board on which the mayor controls three of the five votes. The same Board of Estimates, of course, that voted against Pratt's proposal for IBM to handle the phone upgrade.

Whatever becomes of her lawsuit, or Conaway's for that matter, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that even elected officials think that to fight City Hall you have to go to court.