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Baltimore City Council probes CitiStat agency that aims to improve government

Baltimore City Council members grill CitiStat director.

After hearing complaints from residents about potholes and other quality-of-life issues, City Council members demanded answers Monday from the Cabinet official whose agency uses data to monitor city services.

CitiStat Director Mark Grimes fielded questions for 90 minutes on the data-driven agency and whether it has faltered in its mission to make government more efficient since he took over in January 2014.

Council members raised concerns that CitiStat is failing to analyze data from the 311 call center, which fields complaints and requests for services. They also questioned Grimes about failing to complete CitiStat reports and post them online.

"Mr Grimes, we're practical cats here," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said. CitiStat is "barely operating at all. We want a modicum of accountability."

Clarke called for the oversight hearing after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that CitiStat failed to meet its own performance standards even as the mayor bragged about its effectiveness. The investigation also found that Grimes has been operating a private legal practice that works for state government under a contract that could be worth nearly $1 million, according to public records.

Grimes canceled one-third of the CitiStat meetings last year. Routine meetings requiring city bureaucrats to answer to key data has been a central element of CitiStat since it was started 15 years ago by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who still plugs the agency's creation as a signature accomplishment.

Grimes, who was tapped by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to overhaul the agency, said it has been effective under his leadership. He said there "seems to be a lot of misunderstandings" and "speculation" surrounding the agency, whose budget doubled to $1 million from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2014.

"It's a misnomer that we're waiting for CitiStat to start back up," Grimes said as he flipped through a lengthy slide show about the agency's operation. He discussed the "meat-and-potato work" the agency undertakes, including finding ways to collect money from unpaid water bills. After about 20 minutes, Councilman James Kraft interrupted Grimes.

"All this is great," Kraft said. "We know how it works. Tell us what happens in a CitiStat meeting today."

Grimes then talked about how CitiStat evolved from 2000 to 2015. He said he is working to make the agency less hostile to department heads to create more collaboration between agencies. Under O'Malley, the meetings were known for intense questioning of city workers.

Grimes also said he has not been given a timeline for restructuring the agency and that he presented a plan developed in part by an outside consultant to the mayor in August.

The agency hasn't done some of the work it did before. In 2014, the agency lost data analysis staff, failed to publish any department reports and canceled one-third of the meetings that were the backbone of a process still being replicated in other U.S. cities.

Some CitiStat programs have not held data reviews for four months. For example, a domestic violence initiative that had been promoted as a way to get violent offenders off the street has stalled. Another that analyzes felony gun arrest has not met since October, according to city data.

While Grimes remarked about how hard his staff works, council members pressed him about what exactly they do.

"We're chipping away everyday at the deficiencies," Grimes said, whose $123,644 salary makes him one of Baltimore's highest-paid employees.

"If you can respond to the question, that will be helpful," Clarke said.

Grimes then wanted other agency directors to tell the committee about CitiStat's work. Council members objected and told Grimes he didn't run the meeting. The comment drew laughter from a group of college students who are studying political science and attended the hearing.

While Clarke didn't specifically mention Grimes' side legal work, she warned him that the CitiStat position is "full-time" and deserves all of his attention.

"It connects us to our constituents," she said. "If that falls apart, we're in deep trouble."

Grimes' private practice, which he runs with his wife, has charged the state for thousands of hours on hundreds of cases since it landed a contract with the Maryland Department of Human Resources in August 2013 — five months before he started the CitiStatjob.

Councilwomen Helen Holton and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector also told Grimes that it's crucial for CitiStat to analyze data from the city's 311 call center. Holton said she frequently hears that the call center closes out complaints even though the problems aren't solved.

"When the city hires a bureau chief, they have to be accountable for the people under them," she said. "I'm looking for a process that shows accountability."

When a complaint is marked closed in the 311 system, that means it has been forwarded by the call taker to the appropriate agency — not necessarily addressed. Grimes said CitiStat is working to address the issue by integrating computer systems.

Other committee members stressed the importance of posting CitiStat reports online so that residents could measure the city's performance.

Councilman Bill Henry suggested that council members attend CitiStat meetings to get a better understanding of how the agency operates. He said it's difficult to explain to residents what CitiStat does today because Grimes hasn't articulated a vision.

"That makes it a hard sell," he said. "The public has been in a bubble waiting for the transformation."

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