Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakeand her allies on the city's Board of Estimates today voted down a $7.4 million contract with IBM for switching city offices to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones because she believes there needs to be greater coordination between the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which is part of Comptroller Joan Pratt's office, and the Mayor's Office of Information Technology. And who could argue that isn't needed? Switching the phone system could save the city millions of dollars a year, but doing so without the significant participation of the workers who maintain Baltimore's computer network could lead to costly mistakes.
But the chances for that are greatly hindered by the unnecessary turf war between these two elected officials. Ms. Pratt is not without responsibility in this matter; she is clearly interested in maintaining a part of her fiefdom, even if technology is moving away from the area in which her employees have the most expertise. But Ms. Rawlings-Blake has exacerbated what might have been a minor conflict by allowing her administration to embark on what appears to be an ad hoc replacement of the system without the comptroller's participation or knowledge and then providing less than complete answers when confronted about it.
Ms. Pratt's office has spent more than a year working on a request for proposals and negotiating a contract for the VoIP conversion, and the mayor's office knows it. Administration officials even participated, though perhaps not as much as they should have. The mayor's former information technology chief, Rico Singleton, pitched Ms. Pratt on the idea of his office taking over the project, but on the advice of a consultant who said his plan was poorly developed, she turned him down.But the Mayor's Office of Information Technology had already purchased equipment related to the project.
After Ms. Pratt confronted the mayor about the matter, Ms. Rawlings-Blake denied that her administration did anything wrong. Her explanation, bolstered by an opinion from City Solicitor George Nilson, a mayoral appointee, is that the city bought 80 VoIP phones as part of a pilot project through a contract that was competitively bid. That is true but not the whole story. The contract, with the Rockville office of the firm Digicon, was competitively bid — but not specifically for the purpose of purchasing telephones. It was what is known as a "requirements contract" for a variety of computer hardware, but telephones were not among the many items detailed as falling under it.
Mr. Nilson argued that phones could count as "peripherals," which are mentioned in the contract, and that the difference between computer equipment and VoIP phones is blurry, a fair enough point. In any case, he said, the $55,262 purchase of phones amounted to a minimal percentage of the $3.4 million Digicon contract. However, documents show that the city bought $441,450 worth of computer switches from Digicon to provide "VoIP switch infrastructure for buildings in the downtown Baltimore campus."
Administration officials say the switches aren't really part of a secret effort to replace the phone system because they are now being used for other purposes. That is immaterial, for two reasons. First, the reason the switches were bought in the first place matters, and according to the purchase order, the purpose was to facilitate the transition to VoIP. And second, the switches are designed to perform multiple functions in a network, and independent experts in the field contacted by The Sun's Julie Scharper say the particular kind of switches the city bought include capabilities specific to a VoIP system. Had the city intended to use the switches simply to support desktop computers, it could have bought much cheaper models.
At today's Board of Estimates meeting, Rawlings-Blake administration officials refused to answer straightforward questions about where the switches are and how they are being used on the grounds that it would be improper to do so while the city inspector general is investigating the matter. Afterward, Ms. Rawlings-Blake said that's also the reason that neither she nor her senior staff members have met with anyone from Ms. Pratt's office since she deferred consideration of the IBM contract a month ago. That is preposterous. The existence of an investigation does not preclude the administration from providing basic facts about the matter; in fact, it has not hesitated to provide reams of information that suits its purposes. And the investigation has nothing to do with the IBM contract, which is what the mayor and comptroller need to discuss.
The mayor's action technically was a rejection of the proposed contract with IBM, not of the entire bidding process that led to IBM's selection. Theoretically, IBM and city officials could work out a new contract that the board would then approve. But the chances seem slim that we will now see a productive dialogue between the Municipal Telephone Exchange and the Mayor's Office of Information Technology that marries the perspectives and expertise of both. The city and its taxpayers will be worse off for that.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times