Orange County’s technology chief, Mahesh Patel, who presides over a department that has long been plagued with cost overruns and blown deadlines, suddenly announced his retirement earlier this week.
His Monday morning announcement came as a surprise — including to Supervisor John Moorlach, who said he first learned about it when a Voice of OC reporter called Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s coming as news to me,” said Moorlach.
After speaking with Patel, Moorlach added: “It appears that he just wants to take a little detour in life and spend some time with his son before he goes off to college.”
“I think he’s done an admirable job, and I’m sorry to see him go.”
Patel, who usually talks to Voice of OC about technology issues, suddenly shut down this week, not returning phone calls and instead sending a brief email.
“With respect to my retirement, my reasons are purely personal and I believe this is the right time for me to make a change,” Patel wrote.
He plans to step down on March 6.
Chairman Shawn Nelson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Patel has overseen the county’s troubled technology department for two and a half years, taking over after his predecessor retired in the wake of scathing internal audits that pointed to hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more — in wasteful spending.
Patel’s sudden departure from the top tech slot comes as he oversees a massive upgrade of the county’s computer and phone networks.
The county’s new data center contract was awarded to SAIC, which a year earlier admitted to a massive fraud scheme against New York City on a tech project.
Additionally, the county is working on an unstable platform for its aging property tax system, which county Assessor Webster Guillory has warned could crash.
Development of the replacement system, known as PTMS, has dragged on years beyond its original completion date, and the county is now suing the contractor.
It’s unclear who will replace Patel or whether the county will promote from within or conduct an outside recruitment. Moorlach said he’ll defer to county CEO Mike Giancola on the issue.
“I’m a big Mahesh Patel fan, so I don’t know whether there will be a difficult transition or not,” said Moorlach.
Patel “has strong people underneath him, so I’m not overly concerned. I’m just reeling from the surprise,” he added.
A recent profile of Patel lists his age as 51. Moorlach said employees can qualify for retirement when they’re 50 years old and have 10 years of experience.
As for the cost overruns and delays, Moorlach said Patel has been doing his best.
“I think the first answer would be that some of it [Patel] inherited, so he’s been working through that,” Moorlach said.
In the case of Tata Consultancy Services, which the county is suing for fraudulently running $8 million over its promised budget, Moorlach said county management did their job.
“In that case, I think everyone did what they could do, and we were given assurances by Tata all along the way that everything was being worked on,” said Moorlach.
“When someone commits conduct like that, you just don’t anticipate that. You expect to get services rendered as requested.”
As for the recent Xerox contract, Moorlach said supervisors gave its competitor Verizon “a really hard look” after Xerox threatened to stop providing its existing services.
At the same time, supervisors largely brushed aside efforts by county workers to show that they could handle many of the services in-house for a lower cost than contractors.
The information technology or IT department’s troubles date back more than a decade. An earlier chief technology officer, Reza Khayyami, was charged in 2006 with taking bribes from a software contractor.
Many of the issues were supposed to be fixed by a 2006 task force, the IT Working Group. But that panel waited years to begin reviewing the very problem that prompted its creation — the delivery of a $6-million mainframe system before county supervisors had a chance to approve it.
Then in 2009, a county audit found that $45 million in no-bid technology contracts were awarded over a four-year period.
That type of noncompetitive contracting continued under Patel’s administration, a Voice of OC review found.
Over a three-month period last year, county supervisors approved four separate no-bid contracts as well as nine IT contract extensions and overruns totaling $26 million.
More than half of the extensions and overruns were on no-bid contracts.
It came at the same time as county supervisors publicly expressed frustration over the issue.
“We do get ourselves into these sole-source contracts with these IT firms that we end up being hostage to it,” Supervisor Janet Nguyen said last year. “And we can’t get out of it, because we spend millions and millions and we don’t have a choice.”