Calling City Hall

As a financial matter, perhaps it's no big deal that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas a $562.39 telephone sitting on her desk. It and the five other touch screen, video phones the city bought recently amount to 0.0001 percent of Baltimore's $2.8 billion budget. Their cost wouldn't be enough to keep open a fire company or a recreation center or to roll back city property taxes. But as a symbol, the phone is a problem for City Hall. It contributes to residents' suspicions that their tax dollars are being squandered, and it makes the mayor look extravagantly out of touch with the concerns of most of her constituents. The way she has responded to questions about it has only made things worse.

Comptroller Joan Pratt made an issue of the phones this week, alleging that they were purchased illegally and that the involvement of the mayor's office in the procurement of telephones at all was a usurpation of her long standing authority. The fancy phones, which were purchased at the same time as a few dozen more mundane models that make calls over the Internet rather than telephone lines, were lumped into a broader information technology contract in a way that Ms. Pratt says avoided public review and scrutiny. Furthermore, Ms. Pratt says that it has been her office that has handled all phone purchases for the city dating back to the 1940s.

That last complaint amounts to a bureaucratic turf war, not something that is of overwhelming concern to those outside of city government. Given that the city is considering a switch to voice over Internet technology — a move that, in the long run, could save millions a year — having the Mayor's Office of Information Technology handle the phones may be more effective. The allegation about procurement violations is being investigated by city Inspector General David N. McClintock, and given his track record of independence, we trust he will get to the bottom of things.

It is not too early, however, to render a judgment on the politics of the matter. The mayor's office insists that the six Cadillac phones were purchased as something of a pilot project within a pilot project in an effort to determine whether their video technology might be useful in city government. They were given to the mayor, city council president, a deputy mayor, his assistant and two workers in the information technology department. What need those people — who all work within about 100 yards of each other — would have for video conferencing is a mystery. Even if the technology were more broadly distributed throughout city government, what would be the point? Do city employees need to see each other to get their business done? And can they not be bothered to get up from their desks?

When confronted by Ms. Pratt, the mayor could easily have put this matter to rest by saying that, upon inspection, the video phones were fancier than the city needs but that early indications are that a broader rollout of more basic Internet phones would save the city money. Instead, she icily sipped her coffee while Ms. Pratt accused her administration of breaking procurement law and wasting money. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has raised taxes and cut services repeatedly in the last few years, and she needs to take every opportunity possible to reassure residents that she is even more careful with their money than they are. The message she sent instead was, let them drink Starbucks.

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