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Baltimore’s new on-line database of city contracts misses many of them

Does Potts & Callahan really have only $0.01 worth of contracts with Baltimore government? A review of OpenBaltimore's contract data dump.

open baltimore

OpenBaltimore is an online information portal designed to promote more transparent city government.

Photo by: Mayor’s Office of Information Technology

Caveat contract absum, or beware of the missing contract.

The database of Baltimore city contracts, which the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) posted on its Open Baltimore website for public viewing on Friday, has some valuable data.

Just not very much of it.

Hundreds of active city contracts – involving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and city spending – are not included in the database that purportedly covers the period from July 1, 2010 to the present.

Missing among them: some of the biggest contracts recently awarded by the city as well as some of the most controversial.

Absent, for example, is the $104 million awarded last July to Wheelabrator Technologies for the BRESCO incinerator in South Baltimore and $4.1 million to P. Flanigan & Sons for Grand Prix road paving.

Consultants to city agencies, such as Whitman, Requardt & Associates and Rummel, Klepper & Kahn (RK&K), who have reaped millions of dollars in “on-call” awards approved by the Board of Estimates are missing from the data.

Social services agencies, such as Associated Black Charities and St. Vincent De Paul, that help the city administer HIV, AIDs, Head Start and homeless programs, are also not included.

These groups have been awarded major contracts in the last eight months by the Board of Estimates headed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Asked about the missing contracts and contractors, Ryan O’Doherty, spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake, said his office would look into the matter this week.

Robert Minor, acting director of MOIT, and others more directly involved in the OpenBaltimore initiative, have not responded to several requests from The Brew on Friday and today for interviews.

A spokesperson for Minor (who took over last week in the wake of the resignation of MOIT director Rico J. Singleton) said he was “extremely busy.”

Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, who was responsible for MOIT and OpenBaltimore, announced on Friday that he was leaving his city job, effective April 2.

Open Data for Citizens

The database is part of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s initiative to create a more transparent government. A year ago, she signed an executive order calling on all city agencies, departments, boards and commissions to make data sets under their control available to the public.

The agencies and departments were asked to designate an open data coordinator “to ensure the information provided in the data sets is accurate, clear, complete, unbiased and reliable,” according to a press release.

The data sets would then be placed online at a site called OpenBaltimore under the supervision of Singleton, the city’s Chief Information Officer (CIO).

Other data sets, such as the salaries of city employees, have also been posted on the site.

“Baltimore City Contracts,” the data set posted Friday afternoon, is described as containing “contracts which cover city or agency-specific needs” since July 1, 2010. The apparent source of the data is the Department of Finance.

Some Large Contracts Listed

The dataset has some useful information, such as the amount already spent on a city contract and the amount remaining.

Many of the contracts are for small amounts. We find out, for example, that the Police Department awarded $1,191.20 for plastic pipettes for its crime lab, the Orphan’s Court spent $1,000 for computer repairs and the transportation department ordered $63,220 worth of traffic cones.

Some large contracts are listed. Among them the $37.5 million contract to Veolia Transportation Services for emergency air and helicopter transport for sick patients and $10 million to Motorola Solutions to maintain the city’s radio communications system.

$0.01 for Potts & Callahan?

However there are many gaps in the data that can be most readily seen by the absence of major contractors in the material.

This includes such powerhouses as Whiting-Turner (construction), M. Luis (road paving), Monumental Paving (land clearing), Honeywell Building Solution (security alarms) and Spiniello (sewers).

In other cases, the number of contracts awarded to a vendor are under-reported. For example, P&J Contracting, the city’s biggest demolition company, is listed as having two contracts, while it is actively involved in at least seven contracts.

Another venerable demolition contractor, Potts & Callahan, is listed as holding a single city contract – worth $0.01 – whereas the company currently has contracts valued at $1.5 million.

Why the Missing Data

Our review suggests that the database excludes many contracts that are not directly related to “agency-specific needs.” This might explain why paving, bridge repair, sewer and other bid work is generally not found in the database.

City agencies and departments are responsible for submitting the contract information and keeping it current. Some departments appear to be fairly complete and up-to-date, such as the Fire Department, Police Department, and Housing and Community Development

The Bureau of Purchasing, Bureau of Water, and Department of Recreation and Parks have few listings in the database, while the city’s development arm, Baltimore Development Corp., has no awards listed under its name.

The database also does not appear to record city contracts that, awarded prior to July 1, 2010, have been “renewed” by the Board of Estimates into 2012 and beyond.

To get a sense of how many such contracts may have been missed, The Brew looked at the 23 renewed or increased contracts approved by Board of Estimates at its July 13, 2011 meeting.

Of the 23 contracts approved, only three are listed in the Open Baltimore database. They total $272,000.

On the other hand, the 20 contracts that are missing from the database total $6.29 million.

NOTE: The Brew has been covering city spending closely since July 2010. See our “INSIDE CITY HALL” and other columns detailing contracts awarded at the weekly Board of Estimates meeting.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/MairZdoatz Mair

    Yo, Brew – maybe there’s hope for answers. I didn’t read where you’ve been told you need an FOIA…..yet.

  • Unellu

    From The Series–USA–Baltimore
    Layers and Layers of Transparency

    Ah!  See that the “O” in “OPEN”,
    is open at the top and at the bottom,
    the “O” is a leaking “O”
    in Open Baltimore,
    the information is not complete–
    it is more empty jazz–
    more pizazz–and web site conjuration–
    than solid substance–
    we are a nation of shopkeepers–
    and advertisers–
    purveyors and buyers of phantoms–
    and government transparency–
    is not just a matter of displaying–
    data lit up by sound effects and lightning–
    or the constant streaming of numbers–
    beyond a portal across which citizens–
    are invited to sit down and savor a sighting–
    of the UFOs called govt. contracts–
    such data can be overwhelming–
    can be manipulated–
    obfuscated–obdurately delivered
    as misinformation–
    a campaign of disinformation
    can be waged against citizens–
    with transparency as weapon–
    more cunning that operation–
    than disengagement–
    or dictatorship–
    or lack of cooperation–
    more canny to ask citizens–
    to drink at the well of openness–
    and then to give them bits and pieces–
    crumbs and bite sized morsels–
    to keep them coming for more of the same–
    searching– until exhausted they retire–
    into their cocoons of massive home entertainment–
    the “Amazing Race” and the “Amazing Grace”–
    the “Dancing with the Stars”–
    the 24/7 nostrums-
    and ad nauseum exhortations–
    flitting life size on flat panels–
    all–more tranquilizing–
    than vertiginous democracy in action–
    like dancing with wolves in sheep’s clothing–

    Usha Nellore

     

     

     

  • Richard

    If anyone ever wonders why Conservatives have such an easy time convincing people that government is incompetent and that the “private sector” could do a better job of providing our services, look no further than this. We will continue careening into a world of total privatization lest the people in government bring an attitude of excellence and a passion for transparency to their jobs. This database should be a wonderful tool for citizens to keep an eye on where their money is going. Instead, it’s more proof that government can’t even do the little things right. It’s sad.

    • Gerald Neily

      Yes Richard, conservatives in some places may have “an easy time convincing people that government is incompetent”, but not in Baltimore, where the recent election proved once again that all this is extremely popular. Outsiders may look at Baltimore as a cautionary tale of what government hath wrought, but to most Baltimoreans, this is just the price of business as usual, paid mostly by someone else like the state or federal government, fat cats or a few pathetic schmucks who somehow have fallen through the cracks.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    One serious problem with Baltimore City is that it’s corruption is embedded and has been tolerated for too long. Then comes the wave of public demand for openness and accountability to restore public trust in government. What to do. Let’s see, City Hall releases an accountable list of city contracts and just leave a bunch out that we don’t feel like talking about, and maybe only “The Baltimore Brew” will note that.
     If the Sun and TV stations don’t follow suit and  report it, no worries. Maybe some sort of Citizens League group to force action on these now daily revelations of malfeasance, waste and theft. Occupy the BOE.

  • PCCP

    well for one DOT and Public works had their own website where this information could already be found. admittedly, DOT has been awful about updating their information for a long time. but on the other hand, they have a lot of people who work for them that really don’t know what they are doing. its hard to distinguish incompetence from corruption imo. you will find both in the city of baltimore.

    they should be held accountable for the information.

    public works is slightly better if you go on their website.  although they too make it hard to find. intentionally, it seems.

  • Ktrueheart

    The term “agency-specific needs” is lacking an explanation by the Department of Finance, the source of this data dump.  One can infer a host of definitions, but an official one is preferable … for now I assume it means purchases supporting the daily operations internal to the respective agency … Here’s one for our new Finance Director, Mr. Harry Black … What say you sir?

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