Council Web site is lost in turnover

Launched under Bell, project has fallen into near uselessness

Aides exchange blame

Dixon gets permission to hire Internet technology manager

March 19, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Former Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III spent $150,000 in 1998 to build a City Council Web site -- complete with video cameras to transmit council meetings -- that he boasted would carry the council into the new millennium.

Two years later, city residents trying to reach the online council are told it's "under construction."

Until two weeks ago, frustrated city residents couldn't reach baltimorecitycouncil.com. And even today, functions that were expected to provide citizens with instant access to their city government, such as the ability to review city legislation or council agendas online, are still not working.

"As a new resident to the city, all I wanted was to find out who represents my district, what their interests are, what committees they are on and some information on current issues," Dianne Mekelburg, a Bolton Hill resident who moved from Howard County, recently complained in an e-mail to council President Sheila Dixon's office. "It took me three weeks just to get their names."

Aides to Bell and his successor, Dixon, point fingers at each other over who was responsible for the Web disconnect. And as with all things government, city taxpayers are being asked to pay more -- at least another $215,000 -- to bring the Web site back with improvements.

Dixon said her office wasn't given access to the equipment needed to take over the council Web site. Anthony W. McCarthy, Dixon's chief of staff, said the company hired by Bell to maintain the site refused to work with the new administration, contending that there were outstanding debts.

Last week, Dixon gained approval from the city Board of Estimates to hire a new Web site and information technology manager for $40,000,or $95 an hour. In addition, she has submitted council legislation asking for an additional $215,000 to further enhance computer technology in council offices.

Dixon's office is also negotiating with a local computer company to redesign and maintain the council site, an expense estimated at about $6,500.

"There wasn't any real transition in place," Dixon said of the Web site problem. "This would bring us in line with the whole technology development."

Dave Brown, a former Bell aide who helped build the Bell council Web site, blamed Dixon's office for allowing the council Internet site to deteriorate. Brown said he alerted Dixon aides to establish a maintenance contract with the designer of the Bell council site, New World Technologies, an exchange that Dixon's office says never happened.

"All they had to do was have New World do the maintenance," Brown said. "They didn't want to have anything to do with what we did."

Bell could not be reached to comment.

Bell launched the Web site as the 12-year council veteran was about to embark on his bid to become Baltimore mayor. Then-city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III called the expense a waste of money because his agency could provide similar services through its cable and communications office. Bell complained that Henson intended to charge the council.

From the outset, the Bell council Web site had problems. Council agendas posted on the site were weeks behind schedule and council members complained that they couldn't exchange e-mail with residents.

When the city mayoral campaign began last July, the council Web site was stagnating as Bell focused on the campaign.

"It was in such a sorry state," said Ron Schultz, director of council services. "There was little momentum to get it up and running again."

Today, residents can get information and biographies about council members in addition to learning what districts they represent. But McCarthy said it will be two weeks until the new designer is hired and residents can again look at council agendas and call up legislation as Bell intended.

Dolth Druckman, a Web master and a community activist in Bolton Hill, said many city governments don't know enough about the industry to hire the right contractors to get a good product.

Druckman has reviewed several council Web sites across the nation, including those in San Francisco, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Druckman recommends the Pittsburgh City Council site as the most useful and is urging Baltimore to build a similar one as it embarks on repairs.

"It would be nice," Druckman said, "if our city could put things on the Web and keep it going."

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