Pratt goes too far

Every day that passes without the Baltimore City government installing a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system, the taxpayers waste thousands of dollars. About this fact there is no dispute. The city's old phone system is wasteful and inefficient, and at a time when Baltimore is closing recreation centers and fire companies, there is no excuse for not moving forward with an investment that will serve taxpayers better at a lower cost.

Both Comptroller Joan Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake share the blame in the pettiness and subterfuge that have torpedoed efforts to make the transition to VoIP. But by filing a lawsuit against the mayor and utilizing the free services of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos — whose business interests have clashed with the mayor's policies in some high-profile cases — Ms. Pratt has taken the situation from bad to worse.

The ostensible purpose of the lawsuit is to get a judge to declare illegal the Mayor's Office of Information Technology's use of a blanket contract for computer equipment to buy VoIP telephones and related hardware and to prohibit it from doing so in the future. A recent report by the city's inspector general documented more than $600,000 in equipment purchases handled that way during a period when the information technology department was attempting to begin the transition to VoIP without the knowledge or participation of the comptroller's office, which has run the city government's phone system for decades.

That was the wrong way to handle such a major equipment upgrade, but there is also no evidence that the effort has continued during the last several months. Indeed, the whole project appears to have been at a standstill since July, when Ms. Rawlings-Blake and her appointees on the Board of Estimates voted down a VoIP contract with IBM that Ms. Pratt's office had solicited.

What has been going on since then is that the city's new director of information technology, Chris Tonjes, has been trying to meet with Ms. Pratt and her staff. Ms. Pratt has been holding out for a meeting with the mayor, and the mayor, angry that the comptroller had publicly accused her of breaking the law, has been disinclined to give her one. Both of Ms. Pratt and Ms. Rawlings-Blake need to swallow their pride for the good of the city.

Instead, Ms. Pratt has shown remarkably poor judgment in accepting free legal services from Mr. Angelos. Among other things, he has clashed with the mayor over her plans for the redevelopment of the Superblock on the west side of downtown. Handling Ms. Pratt's lawsuit for free provides him another opportunity to attack the mayor, but it puts the comptroller in a hopelessly compromised position if and when more Superblock-related contracts come before the Board of Estimates, of which she is a member. Would she be able to vote objectively on a project he wants stopped? Meanwhile, the city solicitor's office will be forced to devote time, money and resources to fighting a pointless lawsuit.

The way the Rawlings-Blake administration handled its purchases of VoIP equipment in 2011 and early 2012 was wasteful and duplicitous and involved significant potential conflicts of interest. Its efforts to defend its actions since the facts came to light have been shameful. But one need not condone what the administration did in order to agree that Baltimore needs to move forward with a VoIP transition and that the project should be administered jointly by the mayor and comptroller.

Ms. Pratt's office knows the existing phone system and has just spent more than four years working on a request for proposals for a VoIP system. The Mayor's Office of Information Technology runs the network on which the new phones would operate. Both offices provide significant, relevant expertise.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake needs to meet with Ms. Pratt and to apologize for the way her administration concealed the truth about its efforts to install a VoIP system. The comptroller needs to drop her lawsuit and direct her staff to work with Mr. Tonjes on a memorandum of understanding for how their two agencies will work together on the VoIP project. The matter needs to be handled through a VoIP-specific competitive bidding process — either by picking up the pieces of the rejected IBM contract or starting the procurement from scratch.

But most of all, the city needs to get on with it. Opportunities to save taxpayer money while providing better service don't come along every day.

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