E-mail device has mayor wired
BlackBerry: Never without it, O'Malley uses a small high-tech gadget to stay in touch with City Hall 24/7.
By Doug Donovan
Sun Staff

January 5, 2004

Mayor Martin O'Malley has an addiction: BlackBerries.
Not the fruity sort, the wireless kind. And he's gotten City Hall hooked.

The mayor and his wireless e-mail device are literally attached at the hip - he wears it on his belt. He takes it with him to bed and on vacation. In public he often can't stop himself from checking the handheld gadget or from thumb-typing missives to staff at all hours of the day, every day of the week.

Word of his habit has traveled throughout the state and beyond.

"The only time Mayor O'Malley is not on his BlackBerry is when he's sleeping," said David N. Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., who picked up his own BlackBerry habit after meeting O'Malley last year.

O'Malley concedes he is addicted.

"It would be difficult to function without it," he said.

It's easy to see why.

The BlackBerry (nicknamed by many as "CrackBerry" because of its addictive convenience) is a palm-size wireless computer that receives and sends e-mail, stores documents and serves as an address book and appointment calendar.

It resembles a pager but is fitted with a full keyboard for typing text messages and a narrow screen for receiving them. The latest models also double as cell phones.

The device, while small, has made a big impression at City Hall since O'Malley introduced it two years ago.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led O'Malley to purchase BlackBerries for his Cabinet members because the gadget was one of the few communication devices that worked in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

O'Malley said he was unable to call or page anyone while driving back to Baltimore after the attacks diverted his trip to Manhattan that day.

"To be out of touch like that during an emergency was a very uncomfortable feeling," he said.

Popularity grows

O'Malley's choice of the BlackBerry has proven prescient considering its increasing use by federal government agencies since Research In Motion Limited, a Canadian firm, launched the product in January 1999.

The National Institutes of Health use the BlackBerry extensively, and the National Security Agency has approved of its security measures, clearing it for Department of Defense use. A report in The Hill, a weekly publication covering Congress, stated recently that "BlackBerries have come to rival even cell phones for ubiquity in the halls of Congress."

Ubiquitous use is an overstatement for Baltimore - at least for now.

The city owns 90 BlackBerries, which are distributed and maintained locally by Aether Systems. Each device costs between $300 and $400, plus $40 monthly fees, according to Elliot H. Schlanger, chief information officer for the mayor's Office of Information Technology. That puts the annual cost at nearly $80,000.

Research In Motion executives said it will soon have 100,000 government users in North America.

Other BlackBerry adherents include New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Vice President Al Gore. FBI agents recently seized all three of Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's BlackBerries for the investigation into his office.

Closer to home, the BlackBerry is not as popular. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. do not own the device. Ehrlich does not even carry a cell phone, according to an Ehrlich spokeswoman.

Ehrlich's tech-free approach contrasts sharply from O'Malley's tech-centric management style.

The BlackBerry is the most visible example of the mayor's attachment to technology for improving city services. The flagship of that effort is CitiStat, which compiles statistical data mined weekly to keep tabs on issues such as overtime spending, property maintenance and service request completion.

'More efficient'

O'Malley said the BlackBerry serves him best in emergencies and in relaying problems - potholes, illegal dumpings - he spots while traveling city streets. He can e-mail his assistant, who then relays the concern to the appropriate department, which then initiates a service request.

He recalled the time in 2002 when a water pipe burst in the Police Department's evidence control room.

"I was alerted to it by my BlackBerry," O'Malley said. "I messaged [Public Works Director] George Winfield on his BlackBerry, who then immediately dispatched a crew."

O'Malley said he is instantly alerted by his BlackBerry to every homicide, stabbing, shooting and serious fire in the city. With one e-mail he can alert senior staffers at one time, meaning they can implement decisions faster.

"It's more efficient than telephones," he said.

The immediacy of the BlackBerry tethers nearly all city department heads to O'Malley, rendering their services available to him at any time.

"I think the mayor has an expectation that his Cabinet is available 24 hours per day," said Schlanger, who keeps his BlackBerry tucked under his pillow at night and set to vibrate so as not to wake his family.

On a weekend trip to Atlantic City, CitiStat Director Matthew Gallagher and his friends were watching a boxing match when Gallagher's BlackBerry vibrated. It was 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and O'Malley was inquiring about vacant housing in two troubled city neighborhoods.

"Next thing I know, I'm in my seat belting out responses," Gallagher said. "From a personal standpoint, it's great because you're not tied down to the desk all weekend."

Instead, the desk is tied to them.


"My wife's not a big fan of it," Gallagher said.

Neither is O'Malley's.

"Spouses hate it," the mayor acknowledges.

Catherine Curran O'Malley, a district court judge, said she understands the benefits of instant access to information and to senior staff. But she said her husband's attachment to the BlackBerry - in the evening and on vacations at the Maryland shore - can be irritating.

"It can get annoying," she said. "There are times when it's going off at 3 a.m. It makes an awfully loud buzzing noise. I put it next to his side of the bed so it will wake him up, but it still wakes me up."

She said she does not own a BlackBerry, preferring a cell phone, and that she has established a ground rule for the mayor: He cannot respond in her presence without first telling her what the message says and how he will reply. She said the rule is fair because receiving a message during dinner is "almost like someone whispering in your ear. It's impolite."

O'Malley can often be caught at events, during meetings and before speeches with his head bowed. More than likely, he's not praying if his thumbs are furiously drumming on the device's tiny keyboard.

Schlanger said that O'Malley has worn out four BlackBerries in two years, more than any city employee. His proficiency with its pebble-size keys astounds other users.

"It's almost like he's playing the piano," Schlanger said.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, said he believes his one-handed use of the BlackBerry while driving rivals O'Malley's handiwork. "If I ever get killed in a car crash, it's because I've been on the BlackBerry while driving," Beilenson said.

The mayor said he is trying to be better about how he uses the BlackBerry. "My staff said it's rude to pull the BlackBerry out during meetings," he said. "They're trying to wean me away from that. There should be a Miss Manners etiquette on using the BlackBerry."

Beilenson's diagnosis: The BlackBerry's "a little bit addictive."

Judge O'Malley has rendered the same ruling, but her husband may be past the intervention stage.

"Martin's never going to be able to get off of the BlackBerry," she said. "There's no 28-day program for BlackBerries."

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun