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Q&A: New Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry on modernizing the office, and tech’s role

Henry, who was inaugurated in December, discusses the state of the city's fiscal office as he enters, and plans for change.

Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry. (Photo via Friends of Bill Henry/Facebook)
For the first time in more than two decades, Baltimore has a new city comptroller.

In a 2020 city election upset, Bill Henry defeated incumbent Joan Pratt, who had been the city’s fiscal watchdog for 25 years. With a new officeholder comes new ideas and a new direction for the city comptroller’s office, which oversees fiscal management of the city, including audits, real estate and communications systems such as phones. The comptroller also has a voting seat and serves as secretary on the Board of Estimates, which is the city’s spending panel.

A three-term city councilmember from the 4th District who helped shepherd recently-passed reforms to the structure of city government (and took to TikTok to explain them), Henry campaigned on a pledge to modernize the office and bring transparency. He won the Democratic primary in June, and did not face a general election opponent. He was sworn in on December 8, 2020. A couple of weeks later, we chatted about the current state of the comptroller’s office, where he wants it to go and how data and IT may help to get there. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Baltimore: What IT and data tools do you plan to use as a comptroller? Because you are able to update municipal telephone and mail delivery systems, what are the plans for that?

Bill Henry: The plan themselves are still in progress. I have a transition team that was doing preliminary work in the weeks and months leading up to the general election, where, again, we were fortunate enough to not have a general election opponent so we could get started sooner. And then that report is going to be completed and released early [this] year.

And in some cases, we did identify particular software that could be used for processes, right now that we’re doing in an analog fashion.

TB: On that note, in terms of modernization and restructuring, we saw that one of your transition committees was particularly specified to do that. What is that workgroup tasked to do?

BH: Modernization and restructuring was tasked to specifically look at those work processes. And I will tell you that I am looking forward to their final report. But now that we are here, we are realizing that we didn’t have access to really the full scope of how they were doing things already when we were having those conversations at the transition team level. I’m still going to be looking forward to getting some helpful suggestions out of that report. But there is the realization that there’s even more work that needs to be done.

And I’ll be honest with you, some of it we’re handicapped logistically by the fact that the previous administration really did not use technology. I’m sitting here talking to you, sitting behind the comptroller’s desk that still doesn’t have a computer on it because the previous comptroller didn’t use a computer. And when we came in, we had to order them and they’re on back order. And I’m still working off of a laptop that I really should have turned back in because it belongs to my successor to the City Council.

TB: So in this transition, going from analog to digital and modernizing the comptroller’s office, how can the local tech community play a role in making your job and Baltimore as a whole more successful?

Well, we know that we’re going to need new things, for example, we want to do an open checkbook, kind of a dashboard like many other cities, even Baltimore County, looking locally as a way to see real time spending for the local government. We want to do an audit dashboard. We want to do a fund document library.  It’s been pretty obvious to us that none of these things can be done with what is currently available to us.

So in some cases, we may get specific suggestions out of the transition team report. But where we don’t get specific suggestions out of the transition report, I would be happy to have suggestions from the local tech community on local tech solutions to these problems. I don’t want to go out and hire some firm from Seattle or Chicago or Austin. If there is somebody here in Baltimore who can do the same thing, and if there are even simpler open source opportunities that the local tech community can point us at and help us identify people who can do this work for us whether, a short contract through the city…I don’t want to say we’re taking volunteers to do this because this is legit work and the city should pay for it. But, however, we can identify what we should be asking for, I’m open to any help that the local community wants to provide.

TB: When do you expect the report from the committees to come out?

BH: I think we’re shooting for the first week of January.

TB: In terms of the ongoing investigation with your predecessor and the issue of documents getting shredded in office, was that resolved?

BH: That investigation was concluded by the inspector general weeks ago. I believe the IG identified some issues in terms of making sure that the front desk people actually check IDs in terms of  who’s coming into city hall and who isn’t. But my understanding is that it was concluded that none of the information that had been shredded was relevant to any ongoing investigation. [Editor’s note: Find the inspector general’s report here].

TB: Is there any investigation still ongoing for the office?

BH: As far as I know, there is an ongoing [U.S.] Department of Labor investigation that was never concluded. [Editor’s note: The Baltimore Brew reported on the DOL investigation opening in March 2020]. Honestly, I don’t know any details about it. The Department of Labor has not reached out since I was sworn in. So I’ve never talked to anybody there directly.

So I don’t have any way to sort of gauge the progress of that investigation. I know the rough topic of it, which was that there were allegations by staff that they were required to work overtime without being allowed to claim comp time for it. And we’re dealing with that by not doing that. (laughs) I don’t understand. I mean, I honestly don’t understand why that would even be an issue.

But, you know, we’ve made it clear that [if] people need to work additional time they should mark down comp time on their timesheets. But it would never be policy in my office to require people to work extra and then not allow them to turn in comp time. So I’m feeling pretty good about how we deal with whatever the inevitable conclusions are for the investigation, because at worst, it will be finding that people who are no longer here did things they shouldn’t have done.

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.
Companies: City of Baltimore

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