County’s talks seem headed for reboot
County commissioners’ attempts to accede to growing demands from department heads for more robust computer support ran into a series of system errors Friday.
Two 45-minute sessions, questionably conducted behind closed doors, yielded few answers and multiple concerns.
A consultant brought in at $180 an hour to evaluate bids from seven vendors turned out to be a subcontractor for one of the vendors — a situation that commission chairman Dianne Novak termed a conflict of interest.
The lowest amount bid — an estimated $96,000 a year for a level of service the country regards as identical to what now is provided — would more than double what the county now spends.
And the meeting itself, closed to the public on grounds that it dealt with trade secrets and confidential business information, probably violated the state open meetings law, according to an attorney who specializes in governmental openness for Kansas Press Association.
Novak herself expressed reluctance about having the discussion behind closed doors, delaying the start to seek advice from county counselor Brad Jantz, who was not at the meeting.
“I need a little bit of justification to go into executive session, and I’m waiting to see what Brad will say,” Novak told fellow commissioners before closing the meeting to the public so commissioners and county clerk Tina Spencer could meet privately with consultant Craig Williams of Networks Plus in Manhattan.
The county hired Williams on Spencer’s recommendation to evaluate computer support bids. His fee was to be $180 an hour for up to $1,000 total.
After two consecutive closed-door sessions of 45 minutes each, Novak announced that she had learned that Williams works as a third-party outsourcer for one of the seven bidders — current supplier Great Plains Computers and Networking of Marion.
“I think that’s a conflict of interest,” she said, “but the others do not. I was really disappointed.”
Providing service on a case-by-case basis rather than an annual contract, Great Plains, owned by Lloyd Davies, has charged the county an average of $41,276.66 a year over the past four years to set up and troubleshoot computers.
Annual billings, provided by Spencer at the newspaper’s request, ranged from a high of $46,141.36 in 2016 to a low of $32,028.86 last year. Through the first half of this year, Great Plains has billed the county $17,560.23.
Great Plains bid $96,000 to provide what the county regards as a similar level of service on an annual basis.
Included would he a response time of 30 minutes for problems reported by phone, text, or email and on-site support four-days a week.
All Covered, a Konica Minolta company based in Kansas City, bid less for the base contract — $90,000 a year — but added a requirement that the county switch 167 computers to cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 software at an additional cost of $10,020 a year.
It also promised slower response times, ranging from 1 hour 55 minutes to more than one day, and added a one-time setup charge of $7,500.
Gilmore Solutions of Sterling bid the same as Great Plains — $96,000 a year — but added a $9,000 startup fee and the same Office 365 software for $10,020 extra a year.
Gilmore’s best response time would be one hour, with a sliding scale that would allow up to four-hour response times for lower priority items. It also would charge an additional $7,200 a year to be available after hours.
Other bids were even higher.
TC Wireless, an offshoot of Tri-County Telephone, bid $141,684 plus a one-time startup fee of $24,796.30 and an Office 365 fee of $14,400 per year for the same number of computers. It also would not cover the county’s phone system.
Lock-It Technologies of Beloit and Concordia bid $186,000 a year plus $185 an hour for after-hours work.
Nex-Tech of Lenora bid $180,000 a year plus a $15,000 startup fee and the same Office 365 fee that Gilmore and All Covered required, with unspecified additional fees for after-hours work.
Advantage Computer Enterprises of Iola bid $190,440 for the first year and promised response times of 45 minutes to three hours, with only one day a week on site.
“We’re going to have to re-evaluate the budget if things are going to go that high,” commissioner Randy Dallke said.
Novak moved to reject all bids for information technology, more commonly known as IT, services.
“Personally, I think we should punt on this,” she said. “We’ve got a pay plan to consider. We’ve got the transfer station. We’ve got other things.”
Her motion died for lack of a second.
“When I don’t get that thing to work, I want someone to come,” Dallke said, referring to balky computers. “I have five or six department heads asking for IT people.”
Novak replied: “I don’t think the department heads should make the decision for us. I would like them to show me the need to go with this type of IT. What I see so far shows me what we have is working.”
Commissioner Kent Becker asked whether the county might want to hire its own full-time IT employee.
Neither Becker nor Dallke offered an alternative to Novak’s motion to dismiss the bids, so the discussion is likely to carry over to a future commission meeting.
Discussing multiple companies at once obviated the “trade secrets” and “confidential financial data” exceptions that allow some public discussions to occur behind closed doors, press association attorney Max Kautsch said
The only acceptable grounds for closing such a meeting might have been to keep sensitive security information away hackers, but such discussions would have been more technical than the simplified contract descriptions commissioners were looking for.
At Monday’s meeting, Novak conceded — though Dallke disagreed — that the meetings had been improper.
“Even though we went into executive session in good faith to do exactly as our statement had said,” Novak said, “once we got into executive session, that’s not what happened, and I’m deeply troubled by that. We did not discuss proprietary information or security at all.”
Dallke, while not disputing the latter assertion, disagreed, citing the potential that sensitive topics about personal privacy and jail security might have been discussed, even though they weren’t.
“Diane can say whatever she wants,” Dallke said. “My opinion is we did nothing wrong.”
Novak recommended that Jantz attend all future executive sessions to keep discussions on track, and Jantz indicated this might be a good idea.
Rather than talk about security issues, Jantz stresses that bidders might not have wanted competitors to learn how they use certain technologies, but this seemed to run contrary to the idea of having hired someone within the industry, who sometimes works for a competitor, to review the bids.
Novak also accused outside evaluator Williams of possibly having participated in preparation of Great Plains’ bid and of providing “false information, not accurate information” and being “definitely biased” about the bids by Great Plains’ competitors.