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Who's minding the phones?
(Published May 2, 2005)

It’s difficult to forget the emphasis that candidate Tony Williams placed on the D.C. government’s telephones during his first campaign for mayor in 1998, when he repeatedly vowed to make sure that workers (1) answer the phones promptly and (2) do so courteously.

So it’s a bit ironic that the Williams administration now finds itself facing a threatened shutdown of the city’s non-emergency phone service amid allegations that it has mismanaged the government’s telecommunications.

Voicemail, perhaps, has allowed city officials to take those ringing phones for granted.

To be fair, the Williams administration inherited disarray with the city’s telecommunications systems. Mayor Williams created the Citywide Call Center to make sure there was one phone number (202-727-1000) that residents could dial to get their call answered – though the follow-up on those callers’ concerns has received mixed reviews from the public, which is a different matter entirely.

A 1998 audit by the city’s inspector general, conducted during the last year of Marion Barry’s mayoralty and in the midst of the control board era, criticized the city government for failing to comply with a provision of D.C. law that requires maintenance of an accurate inventory of all telecommunications services. Essentially, the audit discovered that the D.C. government didn’t know what telephone-related services it was buying when it routinely paid the multimillion-dollar bills for thousands of telephone lines, because nobody in the government was paying attention.

Unfortunately, the city’s current dispute with telecommunications provider Verizon reveals that, after all these years and two additional audits by the inspector general with similar findings, city officials still aren’t paying attention.

In fact, mayoral spokesman Vincent Morris told The Common Denominator on April 30, the day when the city’s three-year contract for special low rates from Verizon expired, that it was "ridiculous" for the phone company to expect the government to specify exactly what services it wanted the company to continue providing. (Verizon has agreed to extend the contract only through mid-May to allow city officials to make alternative arrangements.)

Verizon officials say they "have absolutely no intention of interrupting emergency fire, police and 911 services" for D.C. residents during the company’s dispute with the city, despite the Williams administration’s claims that the company would do so.

Verizon cites city officials’ repeated attempts over many years "to shift blame to Verizon" for mismanagement of the government’s telecommunications services as a major reason that the company decided in February to notify the District’s chief technology officer that it would not renew the city’s contract for discounted-rate services. Verizon maintains it will continue to provide the city with phone-related services at its normal commercial rates if city officials specify what services they want to purchase.

Despite claiming the city government is only a year away from completing the creation of its own telecommunications system, the Williams administration apparently remains unable to produce an inventory of its telecommunications needs. And where is D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck as this drama unfolds? Mayor Williams has been criticized in the past for allowing Peck to continue in her high-paid position after she also accepted a second full-time appointment as Pennsylvania’s chief technology officer. Mayoral spokesman Morris describes Peck as "fully engaged." If true, why is the city facing this telephone crisis?

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator