(Photo by Roberto Torres)
On Tuesday, there was more than one technologist in a suit answering questions from lawmakers, as Mark Wheeler, Interim Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Philadelphia, fielded questions from City Council at the budget hearings for the department he now helms.
Wheeler, who stepped in as the city’s tech chief in January after the firing of Charlie Brennan, was formerly the Chief Geographic Information Officer. Flanked by CFO Chris Donato, COO Sandra Carter and Chief of Staff Steven Robertson, Wheeler took the lead in answering questions from City Council on the proposed FY-2019 budget for the Office of Innovation and Technology.
All told, the budget proposal seeks $101 million in funding, a $19 million increase from last year’s budget driven largely by the investment in a project to relocate the city’s 911 call center at 400 N. Broad, as well as capital support for ongoing projects, system software and maintenance and IT training.
(That building, oddly, has caught fire twice in the past week. The cause of the fire is unclear at the moment.)
Despite being only three months into the job, Wheeler held his own during the hearing and subsequent questions by councilmembers, often consulting with Robertson and Donato and other city staffers and promising to follow-up with additional information when needed. Councilman Curtis Jones referred to the frequent turnover in the CIO position.
“Everytime I turn around, there’s a new you,” Jones said. The 4th District rep, perhaps the most critical voice in Council in regard to the OIT proposal, said the $101 million sticker price put OIT among the top three highest departments and asked about how decisions where made about hiring new staffers versus hiring consultants or outside providers.
“I’m asking you for a little more detail about the decisions that you make every year with a $101 million budget,” Jones said to Wheeler. “Citizens deserve that. We don’t know if we’re getting fleeced by companies that have figured out that we don’t know what we’re buying.”
The “fleeced” comment could be read as a reference to the $12.5-million deal Philly made with Taser maker Axon to outfit police officers with body cameras and the accompanying infrastructure. According to ousted a lawsuit from ex-CIO Brennan, who’s suing the city and Mayor Jim Kenney for wrongful termination, the deal resulted in the city paying an “extraordinary premium” as part of the deal.
But Wheeler held his ground after Jones compared water infrastructure investments to IT expenses and said: “With water, I know what I’m getting.”
“IT is infrastructure, like water and streets,” said Wheeler. “We have a prioritized project list. These are business operations that we’re replacing and they are costly to do.”
Councilman Allan Domb, openly a tech community cheerleader often seen at tech offices and events, also raised questions about the $19 million increase, but his questioning was largely on a different vein.
“I have a different view of tech,” Domb said. “It serves great when it works well and should help save money but, for the short amount of time I’ve been here, I haven’t seen it save money.”
Wheeler said the value in replacing old legacy systems, often a big expense for OIT, is that it allows staffers to move from upkeep tasks and allows them to create new systems and products that can be of value for departments and agencies.
“It’s top priority,” Wheeler said. “We had begun talking about strategic priorities on the subject of security and we initiated a security audit because continued improvement is all we can do.”-30-
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