The Orange County Board of Supervisors delayed approval Tuesday of a computer contract that could be worth more than $200 million, amid questions from supervisors and strenuous protests from a local labor leader, who says the process for choosing a vendor has not been sufficiently open.

The size of the contract, which is to provide voice and data services for the county, drew teams of the county’s best-known lobbyists to the board’s regular meeting. Companies like SAIC, HP and Xerox were among the finalists vying for the contract, which has been under quiet discussions for several years.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, also made his presence felt at the meeting, accusing supervisors of engaging in backroom deal making and excoriating members of the media for not shining a spotlight on the process. As many as 19 county employees could lose their jobs as a result of the contract, he said.

“It’s all about backroom deals. Everything is being done in secret,” said Berardino, who called for extensive public hearings on the contract. “What about those 19 people who are going to lose their jobs? …What benefits have they gotten?”

Interim County CEO Bob Franz defended the proposal process, saying he believes it has been an open process.

While board Chairman John Moorlach said the last computer contract proposal a decade ago was “a long and difficult process as well.” The current process had been “fair and thorough,” he said.

Mahesh Patel, the county’s head of information technology (IT),  told supervisors the proposed computer contract provided “opportunities for significant savings” because service delivery had changed. Patel said vendors could save the county money because they use a high degree of automation in their services.

Berardino challenged supervisors to open up the entire proposal process, telling the public which lobbyists had met with them as well as highlighting campaign contributions from each company.

The county’s IT management “has been a floating shipwreck,” Berardino said, noting the numerous scathing county performance audit reports in recent years.

“It’s laughable for you to say this is going to save us a lot of money,” he said, referring to the numerous cost overruns on several large computer upgrades to the county’s property tax and assessment software.

Much of those problems, Berardino said, are because IT managers don’t consult rank-and-file end users when they develop platforms. And this process is no different, he said.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who headed a board subcommittee on IT issues, also took aim at the process on Tuesday, saying she hasn’t had enough time to assess the staff recommendation.

County IT officials are recommending that the county enter into negotiations with Xerox and SAIC on a combination of voice and data networks.

Yet Nguyen said the final product was just dumped on her desk last week.

“We were given 10 CDs,” Nguyen said as she pulled out four huge booklets, which were the result of printing out the CDs. “Staff has done their due diligence, [but] the Board of Supervisors were given two days.”

Nguyen said she wanted IT staff to come back to supervisors with a better description of the proposal from a “high level.” She also wants a better idea of how the contract will work as well as how the county’s staffing resources will combine with IT vendor resources.

Nguyen argued that because it’s so difficult for the county to terminate contracts once they have been granted, she wants to make sure the vendor can’t increase costs.

“I want to make sure there’s not gaming of the system by being the low bidder,” she said.

Supervisor Pat Bates, who worked with Nguyen on the IT subcommittee, also said a delay was in order. “These are significant issues,” said Bates, who has often raised questions about how IT costs are soaring at the county.

Bates also said talking to IT officials at the county is mind-numbing because their proposals and presentations are not meant for policy makers. “I have asked for two briefings,” Bates said, adding that she had received a sheet Tuesday morning that is “unintelligible to me.”

Moorlach was visibly irritated by the delay but agreed to it based on the concerns from Bates and Nguyen.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson also said many of the questions being asked by Bates and Nguyen couldn’t be answered until specific negotiations began. “We’re not going to have certain answers until we go into that,” Nelson said. “This isn’t a final blessing.”

Ultimately, supervisors voted unanimously to delay the decision until they can meet privately on Nov. 13. It’s unclear when the contract would be put back on the agenda for approval.

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