Santana: Xerox Collapse Should Fuel Calls for Outside Oversight

The only thing worse than watching the county’s $200 million Xerox IT contract blow apart on video is actually trying to watch the debacle on the lousy county video player that taxpayers overpay for each year.

Last week’s last-minute legislating, admittedly forced upon county officials by Xerox because of corporate merger timelines, put a disheveled supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer in front of a barely cobbled together quorum at 7:30 a.m., attempting to deal (largely silently) with the massive implications of an IT contract that was bilked by former supervisors for campaign contributions and stuck taxpayers with a lemon IT system.

Virtually every countywide elected official - like the assessor, treasurer-tax collector and clerk-recorder - have told supervisors they won't use the system because its unreliable.

It’s a gem of a meeting, only 16 minutes long, and one that every taxpayer should watch, a virtual advertisement for outside fiscal supervision of Orange County government.

The officially titled, “special” meeting was the final act in an expensive ballet for taxpayers, one that lasted almost a decade -- with all kinds of vendors quietly negotiating their way through a shadowy RFP process (chock full of campaign cash).

At one point in 2013, the process went public and quickly crowned Xerox as the solution for a troubled IT system on a 3-1 vote with Supervisor Shawn Nelson dissenting.

Flash forward to 2015 and it’s largely crickets as the whole thing falls apart.

With millions on the line, two supervisors – Andrew Do and Michelle Steel –couldn’t even make the meeting. Supervisor Lisa Bartlett phoned in late from a board meeting at the local toll roads agency.

In the end, when it came to policymaking on IT, there were only two supervisors sitting on the dais.

Nelson – who voted against the original contract - was the only one doing any talking.

And he was swinging away.

In fact, the next time Nelson raves to me about the wonderful transparency of our county contracting process, I’ll make sure to show him a video clip of him publicly frustrated by the latest speed-IT contract-dating approval session from the dais.

Nelson himself argued that he doesn’t expect Xerox to complete the tasks they have agreed to.

The county is probably in store for “a long year of arbitrations,” Nelson said.

What’s even more odd is the new measure of success at the county.

“Even if they continue to fail, we are better off with this agreement than with the current situation,” Nelson stressed.

These are the same folks that keep traveling up to Sacramento and keep insisting to state legislators that they don’t need a contracts monitor (SB331) to protect them from themselves.

Keep in mind that these are the folks that started the whole municipal bankruptcy thing, being the first in 1994.

It’s the same board of supervisors that for a quick, cheap campaign headline of fiscal prudence in 2005 crafted a bankruptcy refinancing package that severed a key legislative tax intercept from Sacramento that now costs taxpayers $73 million a year in lost property taxes, every year going forward, forever.

Remember that the bankruptcy debt – which cost the budget about $90 million annually in bond payments - was set to sunset in 2026.

State Sen. John Moorlach – who was our treasurer-tax collector when the board authorized the botched refinancing package back in 2005 – complained publicly recently about Sacramento’s penchant for meddling in Orange County’s government affairs in a Daily Pilot commentary.

Moorlach and his colleagues also argue against a county ethics commission, which is now making it’s way toward the ballot.

Yet watching this multi-million dollar Xerox IT contract fall apart – literally just after all the outgoing supervisors get elected to state Senate seats – has to make one stop and take notice.

At least it should make someone like Eileen Decker, the newly appointed U.S. attorney for the Central District (which includes LA and OC) stop and take notice.

I can’t remember the last county IT chief that didn’t either abruptly quit to spend more time with family, retire or be fired. And my memory goes back a decade.

Now, almost simultaneously as the Xerox contract unravels, legislation sponsored by the Orange County Employees Association – the Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency (CRONEY) – continues to make its way through the legislature.

In May, the bill made its way out of the state Senate. In June, it came out of the Assembly Local Government Committee and it’s now headed for Appropriations.

It will be interesting to watch this debate play out against the backdrop of the crumbling and embarrassing Xerox contract.

Lashing out against the heightened oversight envisioned by SB 331, Moorlach recently wrote that it “grinds to a crawl the gears of government.”

Yet if the Xerox contract is the best that full-time county supervisors can negotiate, maybe that’s a good thing.