Baltimore technologist Jason Hardebeck is no longer serving as the City of Baltimore’s director of broadband and digital equity. In fact, Hardebeck’s former department will no longer be housed within the City’s Mayor’s Office.
This sudden change was announced in an announcement by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration. Mayor Scott’s office dated the announcement to Wednesday, although it only went up on the office’s website and in an email to Technical.ly on Thursday.
As detailed in the announcement, the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity (BDE) is no longer a separate entity, and its function is now housed within the Baltimore City Office of Information and Technology (BCIT). Kenya Asli, BCIT’s director of strategic initiatives, will be the interim director of broadband and digital equity until a permanent hire for the position is found. Under the new restructuring, whoever fills this new position will serve under Baltimore City Chief Information Officer Todd Carter.
Asked about the reasons for Hardebeck’s departure, Mayor Scott’s spokesperson Jack French told Technical.ly that the office “cannot comment on personnel decisions.” French added that there are still plans to expand this office “and hire staff to support this critically important work” under BCIT’s oversight. Hardebeck did not immediately return Technical.ly’s request for comment on Thursday.
The experiment of a Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity in Baltimore is over.
While the announcement gave no explanation for Hardebeck’s unexpected departure, it did include City leaders’ praise for Hardebeck’s work, as well as some justification for the reshuffling.
“I’d like to thank Jason for his leadership and vision over the last year,” said City Administrator Chris Shorter in a statement. “The decision to restructure BDE under the purview of BCIT is a logical next step as the City continues to place a laser focus on digital equity and will allow us to streamline the City’s efforts around information and technology access into a single agency. We are committed to aligning our technology resources for better outcomes for the City and the people of Baltimore.”
Hardebeck was appointed in March of 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, with high hopes and a lot of energy around the City making a concerted effort to address the digital divide. Technical.ly chronicled his work multiple times throughout his 18-month tenure. During his first 90 days, we chatted about his goals for the office. Almost six months into his tenure, we again chatted about how Baltimore was addressing the digital divide with goals of building out a municipal fiber network. In the end, the coverage culminated in a look back at the progress Hardebeck had made over 15 months.
According to several community stakeholders, the progress was slim. The smoking bullets were the digital divide being the only section on Mayor Scott’s First Term Action Plan: “Building a Better Baltimore,” with no items marked either “In Progress” or “Completed.” At the time, nearly 15 months since its inception, the digital equity office was still staffless.
From Hardbeck’s perspective, it wasn’t about making moves for political expediency: Instead, he was looking for the right moves with long-term substantial benefits. He wanted to hire the right people — people that knew the community and had expertise in broadband infrastructure. To measure twice and cut once takes time, and generational issues don’t get fixed in a year.
Hardebeck told us the office was in “stealth mode,” and the announcement of significant initiatives was on the way. The initiatives may still come through BCIT, but the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity never got to release its minimum viable product.
“Jason stepped in during the pandemic and developed the Broadband and Digital Equity Framework, laying the groundwork for broadband infrastructure investment for the City of Baltimore,” Mayor Scott said in a statement. “He drove our decision to allocate $35 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds towards changing the digital landscape here in Baltimore. We are confident that our significant progress will continue through this transition. Kenya has played a key role in the city’s efforts to close the digital divide that has served as a barrier to economic mobility, wellbeing, and empowerment in our communities for far too long.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.