Inside City Hall: The gloves come off

Pratt documents high-tech phone expenditures, says the mayor tried to buy her silence by offering two new staff positions.

o’doherty 2

Mayoral press spokesman Ryan O’Doherty listens to Comptroller Pratt voice her concerns about the mayor’s high-tech phone initiative.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

City Comptroller Joan Pratt dropped another bombshell this afternoon – that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake offered her two staff positions in return for her silence over the mayor’s expenditures for Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones.

“This is another false allegation,” retorted the mayor’s spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, who held an impromptu news conference just minutes after Pratt distributed documents in support of her claim that the VOIP initiative has cost the city $659,000 – not the $20,803 claimed by O’Doherty last week.

The horse-trading of jobs and influence is a time-honored tradition among elected officials. But bluntly calling out a fellow politician is not.

Then again, terming the mayor’s phone project “illegal” – which Pratt did publicly at the Board of Estimates last week – and saying that Rawlings-Blake spoke “an untruth” in describing her role in the affair is taboo-breaking, too.

Especially coming from Pratt, who plays close to the vest and maintains such a low public profile that most Baltimoreans would be surprised to learn that she’s been the city’s third highest elected official since 1995.

Competing Over Technology

Faced with purchase orders indicating that the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) spent city funds for 80 high-tech telephones, two IP PBX servers and 124 Cisco switches – O’Doherty said that the expenditures were part of the mayor’s plan to save taxpayer money by developing the VOIP system in-house.

Ryan O'Doherty defended the mayor and VOIP phone expenditures after Pratt left the Board of Estimates room today. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Ryan O’Doherty defended the mayor and her spending on new phones after Pratt left the Board of Estimates room today. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“We can save millions of dollars by not having the comptrollers’ office” install the VOIP system, he asserted.

The comptroller and the bureau of purchases had selected IBM to make telecommunications upgrades in the city system – a $7.4 million award reached after a laborious RFP (Request for Proposals) process that began several years ago.

It was Rawlings-Blake’s request at last Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting to delay action on the IBM contract that sparked Pratt’s initial outburst.

The comptroller’s office may be responsible for the municipal government’s phone service, but it is incapable of overseeing VOIP, O’Doherty said today.

“We are not convinced that spending $7 million is in the best interest of the city going forward,” he said during his press conference. “We are convinced MOIT can do it faster, cheaper, better.”

While portraying the comptroller’s staff as inhabiting a technological backwater, O’Doherty was careful to add, “I’m not disparaging IBM.”

Political Fires

The fracture between the two – Pratt said she had a 4 p.m. meeting scheduled today with the mayor, but it was abruptly canceled – comes at a politically inopportune time for Rawlings-Blake.

Her office is scrambling to preserve rec centers and fire company cuts in the face of a surprising City Council rebellion stage-managed by Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (who has exchanged his own harsh words with the mayor in recent months).

O’Doherty says all Pratt wants to do is “force through” an expensive contract with IBM that the city can ill afford. Pratt’s beef is that Rawlings-Blake is violating competitive bidding rules and trying to “usurp” powers long vested in the comptroller’s office.

Absent from the fray was the mayor herself, who was not immediately available to speak to the media, according to O’Doherty, and Rico Singleton, the former head of MOIT, who signed off on the $659,000 worth of equipment before he was forced out of his position.

Singleton was caught up four months ago in a contracting scandal at his former job, accused of using his influence at the New York State Office for Technology to win favors from a vendor for himself and his girlfriend.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli exposed the arrangement in a scathing audit. Some have suggested that a similar independent audit of VOIP could help reduce the pawing and scratching going on at City Hall at the time when the city faces severe economic problems and a budget that needs to be passed in two weeks.

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  • Truth

    I do not like the title “The claws are out”, it’s degrading when speaking about two professional women.     I say the documents should be released via the city’s website.

    I would much rather have Joan Pratt as Mayor than SRB.   The Black population of Baltimore that did vote was much more interested in having Hugh or Rolley or even Jim Smith but SRB has the Democratic Maryland machine backing.  If you could locate 100 citizens of West or East Baltimore or combined that support SRB, that’s an amazing find.

  • Jg11

    The mayor wants to cut 3 fire companies to save $900,000 a year and risk the safety of fireman and the citizens,but then spend $600,000 on phones. I hope she will enjoy her phone system when someone dies at the hands of budgeting priorities.

  • Janjamm

    First, the headline “The claws are out” is pure sexism. I don’t expect that from The Brew. This is not a “cat fight.” It is government officials vying for leverage and power. They happen to be women, but that’s it. Second, this is a tough battle of ideas. Technology and the solutions it provides can spell the difference for our city. We lost the “Google wired city” contest because we aren’t up to date technologically. Third, this was something that has been in the works for over two years. That, in itself, is ridiculous. It shouldn’t take two years. A mayor shouldn’t have to beg for technological advances. The comptroller should figure out how to get the funds. This is not frivolity. This is crucial to a city’s future. To have the comptroller look at this as if it were a matter of vanity is ignorance. I’m am sure Ms. Pratt is well intentioned, but I can’t believe she really understands the longterm value of this system.

    • steve

      Oh no, a cat fight is exactly what it is.

  • Fire and Metal

    Will Mayor Failings Blake EVER be available for comment on anything other than Grand Prix press announcements.  She is closing firehouses, recreation centers, and cutting summer youth jobs as she increases taxes.  Yet spends on the latest phones for all the big wigs.  Memo to the Mayor: all your big wigs already have a regular telephone, a personal cell phone, a city provided cell phone, a blackberry, e-mail, and secretaries to take messages, they dont need the latest in technology.  Even with all this communication technology Mayor Failings Blake is never available for comment anyway.  Dent dent da

  • Bob

    Well at least when Chief Clack calls to say there were fatalities from a fire,  they will be in color and be able to see each other LIVE which is more than we can say for the citizens that died in a fire in a city where politicians don’t care.  Stop using the firefighters to do your bidding to INCREASE TAXES.  The Fire Department is an essential service,  STOP playing games with  the citizens of Baltimore.

  • Unellu

     The power struggle here is obvious.  SRB appropriated what was traditionally the comptroller’s prerogative and job and the comptroller has retaliated.  They are butting heads over a phone system and meanwhile Baltimore burns.  Sailabration goes on in spite of the fact Baltimore burns.  Sparrows Point closes declaring bankruptcy and depending on who weaves the story, the steel mill polluted the rivers and streams of Baltimore and dumped toxic waste in the Bay or it helped clean Baltimore’s sewer water in its water treatment plant.  Baltimore’s fire houses are closing, Baltimore’s rec centers are broken, Baltimore’s prisons are overflowing–man–what would you call this fight between Pratt and SRB, in the face of these miseries, except a cat fight?  They are not professional women–they are professional wrestlers these two.  This is not a mere disagreement, this is a disaggreable confrontation.  Joan Pratt has accused the mayor of trying to bribe her and by insinuation the comptroller tells the public her palms will not be greased and she will not bend to the mayor’s wishes.  Wow!  Claws are indeed unsheathed here.  I am afraid the comptroller is losing this one–she who shouts the loudest shouts the loudest because she’s losing.  SRB does her talking through a spokesperson–quite the sophisticated pugilist.  Nevertheless,  Blako and Pratto have taken their cue from Nero.  They are birds of a feather although they have chosen not to flock together about VOIT and MOIT.     

    • steve

      Well put Unellu. Pratt is out of control and looking very unprofessional. Additionally, “Sailabration goes on in spite of the fact Baltimore burns. Yet to hear from the brew as to why Sailabration is ‘Brew Approved” and the Grand Prix is not.

      • Gerald Neily

        The Baltimore Grand Prix would be comparable to the Bicentennial Sailabration if two centuries ago around the War of 1812, instead of a fort that defended America from the British, Baltimore had decided to build an Indycar race course, complete with massive grandstands and concrete rampart barriers displacing trees and blocking streets, and then Francis Scott Key had sung his song commemorating the red glare of racecars bursting in air that gave proof through the night that our yellow caution flag was still there, and then someone decided: “Hey, let’s sing that song before every sporting event…”

        • steve

          It is comporable in that it is a huge event costing the city a lot of money to put on. Did the state kick in some money for this?  What about all the police and other overtime and expenses related to putting on a event of this size? Is the city going to make any money on this event? Aren’t these the arguments against the Grand Prix? I have not seen any financial numbers posted by the Brew in reference to Sailibration as was done for last years Grand Prix. I hope they are forthcoming.

          Or is it simply that sail boats are pretty and race cars are loud and icky.

          I have nothing against  Sailibration but at least scrutinize both events with the same criteria. You know, fair and balanced.

          • Gerald Neily

            Personally, my opposition to the Grand Prix has always been because the way it turns the Inner Harbor and the downtown streets upside down runs directly counter to the larger goal of creating a “livable downtown”, which is also the alleged goal of the establishment organizations – the City, GBC, Downtown Partnership, Live Baltimore, Charles Street Development Corp. et al. The Sailabration is exactly the opposite and strongly supports the goal. The way the Grand Prix has been run and its dubious economic underpinnings are just more nails in the coffin. (I don’t speak for The Brew, of course.)

  • Bob

    JanJamm wrote “Joan Pratt can’t understand the long term value of the system”. Does it really matter if you can see the person you are talking to?  Politlicians lie to everyone including each other. European countries are defaulting , going bankrupt, and the city of Baltimore is conductig business as usually. If we can’t learn from what the world is doing wrong we will do the same on a much smaller scale.  Either way it leads to the downfall for everyone.  You can’t spend and spend other peoples money. TAXPAYERS MONEY. The long term value of the system should be responsible fiscal spending. Europe is going to drag the United States down and we should be planning on how not to let this happen. Maybe the Mayor can see the future in her VIDEO PHONES.

  • Kim Trueheart

    The citizens of Baltimore have been “CLAWING” without success for Accountability, Transparency and Integrity … if one of our elected officials gets it by shedding light on the mis-deeds of another I LIKE IT!  The inability of this administration to be forthright about anything it does is the root of this debate, yes, this public debate.  When our Mayor decides to STOP hiding behind her “spin-king” spokesman maybe the truth will come out, but as long as she has that spokesman fronting for her, while she runs through every back door in sight, NO one will ever believe a word he utters.  He makes her look like a really bad experiment in failed leadership gone wild .. truly disappointing excuse for effective public relations and communications.  We deserve better SRB!!!

  • Colleen Davidson

    Baltimore Brew: I do not appreciate the sexist title of this article.  It is disrespectful towards women and I would expect more from a progressive news source. 

    With that said, the article was very informative and I am glad that BB is doing its part to expose the corruption of the city government.  

    • baltimorebrew

      Thanks Colleen, I hear you. I hesitated when Mark proposed this headline. But he sold me on it when he pointed out that if it had been a comparable situation with men, we’d be making some snarky allusions to testosterone and macho posturing….

  • Melissa

    I agree with the many other comments regarding the sexism of the headline. Even if it were two male pols, and even if you used some testosterone-laden headline, that doesn’t justify the use here. Catty is generally taken to mean spiteful; that is not the case here, as surely Comptroller Pratt is angry but her allegations are quite weighty. In the future, perhaps you could try to avoid sexist headlines that rely on outdated gender stereotypes for men and women.

  • Gerald Neily

    Either way, Baltogal, Brew readers GET IT!!!! Yes, there’s a new dichotomy among news organizations, but I don’t think that Blog versus Real News Organization covers it when I look at the politically sanctioned pablum the Sun puts out ever day.

  • Maryland Esquire

    I would suspect that the phone system isn’t really being developed “in-house,” but that it is being done through direct equipment purchases and contracts with various consultants, who are often paid quite a high hourly rate.  It would be interesting to see if MOIT has an internal budget/estimate for developing this system in-house.  If this in-house option is cheaper than the prices submitted in the competitive bid process, then MOIT should have the documents to support its assertion.

    • p johnson

       I doubt the the MOIT has the drive or political clout to sell the city on a lower cost system using Asterisk instead of a Cisco ‘solution’ _sold_ by outside consultants.

  • ReallyLetsGetReal

    Ironic: The real issues here is institutional backstabbing (Comptroller outing the Mayor over a perceived slight, i.e. usurping the Comptrollers power), and the apparent short-sighted view of what the real problems are (the city budget is out of whack and the city gov’t is too busy squabbling amongst themselves to properly address the issue).

    Rather than addressing the real issues of this article, many of the commenters are too busy discussing the articles sexist headline, a perceived slight. Couldn’t two eagles spar with their talons? Who’s to say what the author is REALLY inferring?

    Perfect Symmetry.

    I will say that although the MOIT seems to have stepped out of line here, as far as processes, using a 600K contract over a 6MM contract to use a technology that will have better savings over the long-run, in a cash strapped time, is better for the City. She made the right call. She just underestimated Pratt’s response. Time will tell if the amount of savings compared with end-utility was worth the sludge she now finds her feet in (assuming the 6mm and 600k contract are not equal, you have to look not only what you paid for, but what ya got)

    Re the headline, would you be upset if it was two male pol’s and the headline was something like, “the gloves are off”, etc. I doubt it. Be honest with yourself.

    • baltimorebrew

      From Baltimore Brew:

      Important clarification – the $659,000 under dispute is only for a “pilot test” of the VOIP phone system.

      The mayor’s office hasn’t yet provided figures as to the cost of the system MOIT proposes to do “in-house,” except that spokesman O’Doherty implies that it will cost much less than the $7 million IBM system that Pratt is advocating.

      O’Doherty’s exact quote: “We can save millions of dollars by not having the comptroller’s office do it.”

      • ReallyLetsGetReal

        thx for the quick reply and correcting me! 

        IBM (whose goal is to make a profit for shareholders) would charge a higher rate to provide a similiar if not equal architecture than an Internal team in MOIT. So O’Doherty’s estimate of a savings is okay with me, at least qualitatively.

        Why the MOIT and Comptroller were not able to see eye to eye is troubling. I doubt Pratt would be un-welcoming to a potential multi million dollar savings. 

        Given her track record, also doubt Pratt would air the dirty laundry unless she felt she was in a corner, and could not check/balance SRB in any other way.

        So I now think of the breakdown as a more general “SRB’s inability to lead/manage City Hall.” It’s ultimately on her as Mayor to navigate the waters of “operating within protocol” and “reaching the optimal decision”. Its too bad that in the specific instance, operating within protocol here would potentially cost the taxpayers more than her unilateral movement. 

      • Lars Peterson

        If the comptroller’s website is any indication of the technical sophistication of the employees of her office, then I would not trust them to buy so much as a toaster oven.

        However, Joan Pratt is correct that the city charter grants the comptroller’s office the final word on phone systems. 

    • p johnson

       I agree long term VoIP should save the city precious money.

      This dispute also highlights a failure in the city charter. If the comptroller controls the phones and the Mayor IT , how is that conflict resolved when the phones become just another IT device? Maybe Pratt should have highlighted that instead of being just another petty politician looking for someone to attack and make themselves look better.

  • Darlene

    “The claws are out”? Really? “The fracture between the two women”… What does gender have to do with a budget dispute between two politicians just because they both happen to be female? I suspect coverage would stick more to the facts and avoid throwing in needless stereotypes if you were writing about male politicians.

  • Aishabennington

    And still no apology for the sexist remarks. No respect for those who read your blog? You have lost a reader!!!

    • baltimorebrew

      Aisha, we’ve changed the headline and apologized. It was a bad choice of words for all the reasons you guys pointed out.
      We put a post up about it that you can read here.

      • steve

        I bit dissapointed you backed down on this. You can’t please everyone. As a man am I suppoded to be offended at the quote from Curran on you Royal Farm story referring to a “pissing contest”. No!! Thankfully most people can role with things like this and not get their panties in a wad. This whole thing makes me laugh.

  • Gerald Neily

    OK, Brew, now the “gloves are off”. What’s under the unsheathed gloves? Claws or fists? Did they attack with blunt force or merely scratch the surface? Will it end with a knock-out or is this just an escape claws?

  • Senatorgayle

    Hoping that many folks were able to read beyond the headline and read the content of the article.  Does anyone think the comptroller is being out of line for doing her job?  Does anyone think SRB should provide the apology for abusing the system and not answering to her actions?

    • Carl Peterson

      Yes, I think she is way out of line and standing in the way of progress. The Comptroller SHOULD be looking at the possible conflict of interest and making sure that we aren’t overpaying for networking equipment because we have contractors working for the city who are buying from themselves. What her office is doing is trying to maintain control of a cash cow that is going the way of the dinosaur. The city needs an IT department. Perhaps it shouldn’t be MOIT, but it needs to be it’s own department. Do you really think The Comptroller’s office should be running IT for the city? If it were an ideal world and you were in charge, how would you set up IT for The City of Baltimore?

  • Muwatu

    Has anyone asked the question “Why is Pratt is so upset? ” Typically you don’t see this kind of anger without money being involved. My hunch is that the comptroller’s office is charging back the IBM phone system lines to city departments creating a profit center for her department. Moving these phones out of her department’s control reduces her coffers. Follow the money folks, I bet that’s the case.

    Communication is moving beyond dial tone and certainly beyond Centrex type lines. Going with a VoIP system will provide savings for the city. Typically city, state, and local governments have thousands of centrex lines at $40 per month or more. VOIP eliminates that need to pay $80 a month for two employees to communicate, sometimes in the same building.

    Start asking tougher questions Fox and Baltimore Sun, it’s not always a scandle, sometimes it’s just office politics gone bad. Of course that doesn’t sell as many advertisements.

  • Carl Peterson

    It is clear to me that it makes no sense for the comptroller’s office to be in charge of voice over IP, unless they are also responsible for building and maintaining the IP network. The idea that they are going to build and maintain a separate IP network for VOIP is completely ludicrous and would completely negate the savings we could realize by moving away from overpriced POTS lines. Even a non-tech can look at the numbers in MOIT’s pilot project and quickly grasp that the majority of the expenditures were for building and upgrading the IP network that they are responsible for. It may be the case that the comptroller’s office took over responsibility for the city’s phone system in 1949, but I can’t find anything in the charter granting them exclusive control over voice communication, or even telephones, yet news outlets seem to be reporting it as if it is fact. Can anyone point to a section of the charter, or any law, which vests the comptroller’s office with this responsibility? I am no fan of SRB, but to me it is clear that the comptroller’s office has no clue what they are talking about and are grasping at straws trying to maintain their revenue stream as the rest of the world moves away from an archaic technology that they still spend entirely too much money on. I challenge The Brew and it’s readers to answer the following questions.

    1). What law grants The Comptroller’s office control of the city’s telephone system?

    2). What is the current financial model for legacy phone lines? Who controls them, who pays for them, and how much money do we spend on it?

    3). What was included in the contract that The Comptroller’s office wanted to give to IBM? Were they planning on building out a new IP network and if so, was it going to support everything else as well or was it going to be a dedicated network for VOIP?

    4). MOIT spent a good chunk of money on network switches. What switches did they buy and did they pay market price for them? There is a huge conflict of interest created by having contractors, working essentially as employees, buying from themselves. We could have gotten a great deal or we could have gotten ripped off but it should be really simple to answer that question.

  • Brenda Pridgen

    It would behoove the citizens of Baltimore to focus on policy opposed to personality whether at the local, state or federal level.  I can appreciate histrionics but I am most interested in policy or should I say the lack thereof and how it affects me as  taxpayer.

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