Pratt takes bad situation and makes it worse

For those keeping score at home, Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt appears to have slipped into the lead in the contest for who is most at fault for the continuing debacle that is the Baltimore City government's inability to modernize its phone system. Various members of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, past and present, have certainly given her a run for her money, but the comptroller's response to a public meeting the mayor held to analyze the state of the phones erases all hope that the matter will be handled amicably and professionally.

A brief recap: Baltimore's city government has an old and expensive phone system, which has been run by a unit of the comptroller's office for decades. During the last several years, Comptroller Pratt and others have been talking about switching to a modern, and much less costly, voice over Internet protocol phone system (VoIP), which would rely on the city's computer network infrastructure rather than phone lines. Ms. Pratt's office estimates that the city is wasting $400,000 a month by failing to convert to the new phones.

Four years ago, Ms. Pratt's office hired consultants and issued a request for proposals for a VoIP system. In the meantime, Mayor Rawlings-Blake's then-head of information technology, Rico Singleton, decided that his office could do the job faster and cheaper. When Ms. Pratt balked, he went ahead and sought to do it without her knowledge. His office purchased phone equipment under existing, blanket contracts for computer equipment and peripherals and began installing it in some city government offices. An investigation by the city's inspector general found evidence that he and others concealed the effort from Ms. Pratt and other elected officials. Mr. Singleton resigned this spring because of questionable conduct in his previous job in New York.

When Ms. Pratt learned of the phone purchases this summer, she accused Ms. Rawlings-Blake of violating city procurement law. Ms. Rawlings-Blake dismissed her concerns and played down their significance and the cost of the purchases. Shortly thereafter, the mayor and her appointees on the Board of Estimates rejected a VoIP contract with IBM, which had emerged as the winner from Ms. Pratt's bidding process. Finally, Ms. Pratt filed suit against the mayor over the matter, using free legal services from the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, the eponymous proprietor of which has feuded with the mayor about other issues in the past.

All that brings us to the meeting Thursday of the mayor's newly impaneled "PhoneStat" committee, which is supposed to evaluate the performance of the city's phone system. There, the city's new IT chief, Chris Tonjes, who had no part in the earlier shenanigans and who has appeared intent on playing a constructive role in moving forward with a conversion to VoIP, said he had found dozens of "phantom," unused phone lines in his office alone — at a cost of $45 a month each. In all, he estimated that by removing unused lines, the city might save $2 million a year on the city's $16 million phone bill.

Was this meeting a deliberate attempt to make the comptroller look bad? Maybe so, but it could also have been a productive exercise to improve the phone system and reduce waste. It all depended on what Ms. Pratt made of it, and she chose to make the worst of it.

That Ms. Pratt didn't show up for the meeting was bad enough, but what is most disturbing is that she later referred questions about the matter to her attorney in the suit against the mayor, Charles G. Bernstein. What business does he have answering questions about the workings of the Municipal Telephone Exchange? Who is he to dispute Mr. Tonjes' findings?

The fact that Ms. Pratt accepted Mr. Angelos' offer to provide her with a pro bono lawyer shows questionable judgment. That he is now acting as an agency spokesman is mind boggling. It is a definitive sign that Ms. Pratt views this dispute as a matter of litigation, not as a problem to be solved. She may think it's important to get a judge to say that she is right and the mayor is wrong, but she has lost sight of the taxpayers' interest along the way.

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