A long-awaited, multimillion-dollar county computer contract comes out from the shadows today with teams of lobbyists ready for a final push among county supervisors as they ready for a vote next week.

The last county computer contract with the firm ACS State and Local Solutions ran for a decade and was worth $250 million.

With that relationship running its course, numerous firms have been locked in a tough but quiet bidding war for the services in recent years through the request for proposals (RFP) process.

“It’s a big vote,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach. “It’s a big contract. Twelve years ago [when last put out for bids], it got lots of media attention.”

Vice Chairman Shawn Nelson acknowledged the jockeying between companies and lobbyist, noting that “everybody is anxious.”

The bidding process “is too long,” said Nelson. “People are getting fatigued. You get deal fatigue with anything if it runs out too long.”

County staff is expected to release its final report Wednesday on the suggested winner and to ask county supervisors to consider the contract in open session on Oct. 16.

“I love the competition,” Moorlach said, “and I’m excited there were a lot of companies looking at it. It made the winnowing a bit more difficult.”

While Moorlach said he hasn’t seen the final agenda report but is comfortable with the process, saying information technology (IT) staffers have done a good job. The county counsel and purchasing managers also participated in the process, which was broken into sections to allow for competitive scoring, he said.

Moorlach noted that even a member of the Orange County grand jury, which Moorlach has criticized in the past, has observed the entire process and helped ensure fairness.

Yet two supervisors — Nelson and Janet Nguyen — said they have questions about the contract and are unsure they’ll be ready to vote by next week.

And the county’s chief labor leader is already calling for expanded public hearings because of the large scope and implications of the project.

The bidding for the contract has always overshadowed harsh critiques of the county’s computer contracting in recent years.

The county’s IT department has been faced with numerous criticisms in recent years. Satish Ajmani, former IT director, was forced to retire in October 2010 after a series of scathing audits from the county performance auditor found problems with the management of IT contractors.

One 2009 report found fault with with more than $45 million in no-bid contracts within the IT department. A 2010 follow-up audit found fault with an $800,000 strategic IT plan because it fell short of guiding policy makers effectively.

Moorlach said he has faith in the county’s new IT Chief Mahesh Patel saying his staff has exhibited exception professionalism in structuring a bidding process that got the best out of competitors seeking to gain the county business.

“What I can gather from the process is that it’s about as fair and objective as it can be,” Moorlach said.

According to sources familiar with the new IT contract, it proposes to split the business between San Diego-based SAIC and Xerox, which recently took over the county’s current contractor, ACS State and Local Solutions.

A confidential memo sent to county supervisors notes that at Tuesday’s meeting they will be asked to select SAIC to operate the county data center. Those services will include desktop and application support for county departments that don’t have their own IT department.

Supervisors also will be asked to select Xerox-ACS to begin negotiations for other services, including support for the current voice and data network and implementation of a converged voice and data network.

Sources say the contract will run shorter than previously, with interest in a five- to seven-year contract.

Pricing has yet to be determined and will be part of the next process, which is expected to be finalized by the Dec. 8 board meeting.

Two supervisors, however, have indicated that timeline may be tough to meet, given that delays have been common.

Nelson questioned whether the investments in phone technology make sense.

“I don’t want to spend money unless it’s something we need,” Nelson said. “I get very nervous if we’re doing things that aren’t proven. Realistically, I don’t want to spend a fortune on a bunch of phone technology when I can do what I need to now without helping some vendors.”

“The days of landline phones are a thing of the past,” Nelson said, asking whether all data should be merged.

“I don’t intend to vote yes on anything until I get a sense we’re not in a risk-taking endeavor with this equipment,” Nelson said.

Nelson also warned, “I’ve had an opportunity to ask a lot of questions, and most haven’t been answered.”

Supervisor Janet Nguyen also said she is not happy with the process.

She said the RFP looks as big as “the Bible.” “That was a concern, why was it so thick? It should be simple,” Nguyen said.

She also blasted the RFP process.

“I’m not fully happy with the process,” Nguyen said. “I’ve got some process questions. Staff has known about this. We’ve tried to get the ad hoc committee [Nguyen and Supervisor Pat Bates] to meet. But it was never scheduled with staff.”

“I wanted more information months ago,” Nguyen said.

“It’s a decade-long contract, worth a couple hundred million. … It is one of the most expensive items, and we need to control it,” she said.

Given other problematic software upgrades for the county assessor, treasurer-tax collector and auditor,  the new contract “could explode, and we don’t want that,” Nguyen said.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, said the contract should undergo public hearings.

“The lobbying efforts have been massive and done behind closed doors,” Berardino said. “And the public has a right to know in thorough detail what has transpired and what’s involved in awarding a contract equal to $200 million tax dollars.”

Given recent attention on labor negotiations and similar concerns that they be done in public, Berardino said the computer contract was an opportunity for supervisors to put similar transparency measures in place for contractors.

“If they agree to make all their other contracts, negotiations and lobbying public, I believe our negotiations should be equally scrutinized,” he said.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana

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