James Sanders, an Albany firefighter paramedic, responds to a call.
Photo: Lianne Milton The Bay Citizen
A decade later, though, both of the big projects that eventually emerged — the East Bay Regional Communications System and the Bay Area Wireless Enhanced Broadband network — are in disarray, despite the commitment of more than $100 million in federal funds.
Accusations are flying about improprieties in the contracting processes, which have awarded the bulk of the work on both systems to Motorola, the wireless communications giant Equipment sits idle in warehouses. Local officials are upset about tens of millions of dollars in unexpected costs that they will have to cover.
In the case of the Bay Area broadband network, not a single county or municipality has signed a formal contract to use the system, and the head of the inter-governmental agency responsible for its development recently disclosed plans to resign.
This tale of two systems illustrates the hazards that can arise when local governments race to tap new sources of federal money — including, in this case, both Homeland Security funds approved years ago and more recently authorized stimulus money aimed at improving the nation’s broadband infrastructure. In Washington, House Republican leaders have harshly criticized the multibillion-dollar broadband program in particular.
Photo: Lianne Milton
Equipment is to be added to this tower, above, in Bernal Heights, as part of a new federally financed broadband communications system for firefighters and other first responders.
When it comes to complicated technology projects, local officials can easily find themselves at the mercy of a vendor and with few palatable options when serious problems arise.
“The problem is that when it comes to highly technical deals, it is hard to follow the money,” said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. “There is less accountability and concern when it comes to federal government money.”
The impetus behind the East Bay Regional Communications System, which covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties, was simple: public safety agencies relied on a patchwork of incompatible communications systems, and they needed an upgrade.
That was a nationwide problem, and the Department of Homeland Security had made money available specifically for public safety agencies to create interoperable radio networks.
Alameda County initially led the project, and in 2007 a regional government agency, the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority, was established; its board is composed of 23 public officials representing 31 East Bay municipalities and four special districts.
The federal government agreed to provide $50 million, with an additional $17 million to come from participating local governments.
But the project got off on the wrong foot in 2005 when Alameda County entered into a $5.1 million contract with Motorola for the first key component of the system. An audit by the federal government concluded in 2009 that the state had not been advised of the noncompetitive nature of the contract and no formal cost analysis had been performed.
John Gioia, a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, said the original contract specifications appeared to have been written expressly for Motorola; no other companies submitted bids.
“Some of us would have preferred slowing things down,” Gioia said. “It was unclear whether other vendors could have applied if the specifications had been written differently.”
The project was also plagued by poor technology choices. Initially, the system was based on a traditional telephone network design known as circuit-switching. But in late 2009, the authority decided to switch to Internet-based technology.
Some of the equipment that had already been installed — worth about $630,000 — was removed and stored in two warehouses. Ultimately it may have to be given away or recycled, said William J. McCammon, executive director of the East Bay Regional Communications System.
“Obviously if we could have had a crystal ball, we would have waited a little bit at the beginning,” McCammon said. “But we had to spend the money.”
The federal grants would have expired if they hadn’t been used, McCammon said. Meanwhile, it turned out that the $67 million budget would not cover all of the costs. Local governments could also face an estimated $37 million bill for maintenance and operations. The network is scheduled for completion in 2013.
Motorola denied any wrongdoing.
"Motorola followed all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations throughout the procurement and implementation of the project," Matthew Messinger, a Motorola spokesman, said in an email. "We work closely with our customers to provide them with detailed project plans and the known customer costs."
The Bay Area Wireless Enhanced Broadband system was designed to provide first responders with a comprehensive data communications system (the East Bay network is for voice communications), and also serve households and businesses across 10 counties that did not have access to broadband Internet connections.
Despite a state review last fall that found no wrongdoing, federal authorities are now examining the $50.6 million grant awarded to Motorola last August to build the network. As part of the deal, Motorola agreed to a $21 million in-kind investment, to be recouped from user fees.
Interviews and documents show that four former Motorola employees played an important role in awarding the contract.
Motorola first had to be selected as a partner by the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, which was led by Laura Phillips, a former manager in Motorola’s government relations division. Last spring, Phillips and two colleagues — also former Motorola managers — helped appoint a six-member evaluation panel to review proposals from four contractors, according to a source who worked for the agency at the time but asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his professional relationships.
At least one of the evaluators, Morris Tabak, then assistant chief of the San Francisco Police Department, lacked crucial technical expertise and relied on a former account manager at Motorola to guide his decision-making, a public safety official, who requested anonymity for fear of damaging his industry ties, said Tabak had told him. The account manager now works at the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
Tabak did not reply to two messages left at his home requesting comment. Phillips did not return two calls to her office.
But in a pointed letter dated Sept. 16, 2010, to Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose, Phillips wrote, “The selection process was a fair and neutral one, which presented more than an adequate opportunity for interested vendors to meaningfully participate.”
Phillips, executive director of the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, told her staff on March 25 that she was resigning, effective April 16. It is not clear what prompted her decision.
The Inspector General’s office of the federal Department of Commerce opened an inquiry into the project in December after receiving complaints from Reed and Jeff Smith, the county executive in Santa Clara.
Perhaps even more damaging, officials now say that user fees and operating expenses could cost participating governments as much as $24 million a year over 10 years.
“We are very concerned about what the cost is going to be per month,” said Mike Milas, executive director of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability project, which represents more than a dozen cities in Santa Clara County.
Messinger, the Motorola spokesman, said the contracting process for the broadband project was “properly conducted” and that the company “has been transparent about all known customer costs.”
Construction is in the preliminary stages, and the project is scheduled to be completed by July 2013.
Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/12d04)