Tension continued to build at Baltimore City Hall this week as city Comptroller Joan Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continued to lock horns over an upgrade to the telephone system used in City offices.
Pratt said Rawlings-Blake’s information technology staff purchased 80 telephones, six video-phones, two servers and supporting equipment for technology renovations without going through the mandated process for buying items over $50,000. She said the purchase amounted to $659,000, including the phones, servers and all of the technology. She said the mayor’s Digicon Corp CQ for upgrades of the telephone system with Cisco equipment.
The mayor’s office set the amount for the phones at $20,802, but acknowledged a total of $218,000 was spent for the equipment and supporting “infrastructure.” Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, denied that the purchase was inappropriate. He said purchasing through the mayor’s tech staff was more cost-effective than having the comptroller’s office send the purchase out to competitive bid.
"We are not convinced that outsourcing a $7 million dollar contract is in the best interest of the city going forward,” O’Doherty said in a news conference June 18 at City Hall. “We are not convinced that the comptroller's office has the technical capacity to implement voice-over IP to all city agencies. We are convinced that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology can do it- better, faster, and cheaper.”
Controversy stirred June 13 after Pratt confronted Rawlings-Blake about the purchase at a meeting of the Board of Estimates, which, according to the city’s website, formulates fiscal policy for Baltimore. Two days later, Rawlings-Blake released a breakdown of the costs to dispute Pratt’s estimate. Pratt said at the June 18 news conference that the mayor cancelled a meeting where the two were set to discuss Pratt’s claims, but O’Doherty said he knew of no such meeting.
“The city and the Mayor's Office of Information Technology have circumvented the City's purchasing process,” said Pratt at the news conference. She said that a request for proposals was submitted, but that Cisco, the company the mayor’s technology office hired, did not respond. Pratt said Avaya and IBM followed protocol and should be hired for the project.
At the news conference, Pratt also accused Rawlings-Blake of trying to make a trade with her to keep quiet about the matter. She said that in a May meeting, the mayor offered to fund two positions under her purview if Pratt would allow her office to control communications services, the division that is currently supervised by the comptroller. O’Doherty refused to respond to “every allegation” made by Pratt.
“If there were any truth to these allegations I wouldn’t be standing here answering all your questions,” he told reporters.
According to Pratt, on March 25, 2011 the city put out a RFP looking for a company to implement Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones. However, two days before proposals were due, the city began to use an existing contract to assemble a new VoIP system, even though the expanded contract was for computer equipment, not telephones.
IBM and Avaya were set to be awarded the $7 million contract this month before a vote was postponed for three weeks by the mayor.
The comptroller has authority to oversee all transactions regarding communication services and says her power was usurped by Rawlings-Blake.
Pratt alleges that a large part of the system was purchased, when it was said to be only a trial run.
O'Doherty also said that the expansion of the existing contract to include the phones was legal because the technology in the already existing contract could support telephone services as well as computers.
"Only $20,800 was spent on telephones and we only bought 80 phones," said O’Doherty, acknowledging that the phones were part of $218,000 spent to buy and support the equipment.
Pratt has said that the number given by O’Doherty is not a complete figure because it only includes the cost of the phones and none of the additional materials needed to actually make them work, such as the $441,450 in switches that accompanied the $218,000 in expenses.
City charter rules say that in order to be considered for a contract with the city, companies must officially register as a vendor and place a bid into the competitive process.
“The Bureau of Purchases says that if there is a line item that will cost more than $50,000 it has to be competitively bid,” said Pratt.
According to O’Doherty, city solicitor George Nilson has “personally reviewed the contract in which these phones were purchased and he has said those purchases are legal.”
According to Pratt, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Jack Young, City Council president, both have video phones, though Young alleges he didn’t request the service.
Pratt said that with the VoIP system through IBM, the city could save $23 million, equaling a 24 percent reduction in cost savings for the city.