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Mayor, comptroller spar over phone contract

After a heated and at times bitter debate between Baltimore’s mayor and comptroller, the city Board of Estimates Wednesday voted down a proposal for a new telephone system with IBM under a $7.4 million contract.

At one point, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake glared at Comptroller Joan Pratt and rendered sarcastic comments as Pratt lobbied for the contract.

Pratt had pushed the IBM deal, which, even though it was voted down 3-2 by the spending board, could be revisited later this summer because the request for proposals for the system remains open.

In the meantime, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said her administration will continue to back a plan to allow the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology to supervise the new phone system — a departure from the existing bureaucratic structure that has the phone system under the control of the Municipal Telephone Exchange, an agency that reports to Pratt.

“The mayor has made clear to me that she is not in favor of this contract,” Pratt said, noting Rawlings-Blake had recently cancelled two appointments with her to discuss the situation.

Turning to the mayor, Pratt asked: “I’d like you to explain why.”

Rawlings-Blake said the issue of the city’s new telephone system had been controversial over the past month because it had been the “subject of media attention and misrepresentation.”

“There have been no violations of the city charter,” she said, reading from a statement and adding the matter was “unproductive and a convenient distraction.”

Pratt has sought an ethics opinion from the city’s inspector general because she said the mayor’s office had approved the purchase of several pieces of new telephone equipment from Digicon Corp. without competitive bidding. Digicon has a standing technology contract with the city

The comptroller and the mayor have clashed over the purchase throughout the summer.

At Wednesday’s meeting, a city official told the Board of Estimates that eight new phones had already been purchased and installed.

Pratt asked the mayor to explain saying, “Phones have already been installed even though you knew a RFP was to be received by the city?

Rawlings-Blake declined to answer.

In the end, Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young voted for the IBM contract, while the mayor, a representative of City Solicitor George Nilson and Department of Public Works Director Alfred Foxx voted against it.

“Here we have a clear example of fraud, waste and abuse in city government,” Pratt said.

The mayor said later she hoped a collaborative agreement could be reached as soon as possible between the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology and the Municipal Telephone Exchange.

In another matter, the board approved a five-year contract for Fire Chief James S. Clack that will raise his salary by 18 percent by the end of the deal, July 1, 2018. Clack currently earns $161,262 annually. His salary increases will begin Jan. 1, 2013, when he will begin to earn $164,487.

The raise was protested by officials of two city firefighter unions, who questioned the timing of the pay hike the same week the city closed two fire houses.

Pratt and Young voted against Clack’s pay raise.