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Council puts off decision on digital contract

Thursday, February 22, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Faced with the question of whether to approve a digital education contract for an out-of-town bidder chosen by city staff or extend the contract of a tried-and-true local company, Austin Free-Net, City Council decided last week to postpone the decision.

Council Member Leslie Pool flagged the item for discussion, saying she did not understand why Austin Free-Net came in second on the purchasing matrix and a San Francisco company, Community Technology Network, came in first. She said she had heard good things about the San Francisco company but felt like the procedure for choosing the vendor had lacked transparency.

Pool was the chair of the city’s Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission before running for City Council, and she said that Free-Net has been providing digital literacy services for more than 20 years, a fact confirmed by software engineer Chip Rosenthal, one of the group’s early supporters.

When the Austin Monitor spoke to Rosenthal after the meeting, he said he was concerned about what he perceived as the staff’s lack of accountability to Austin citizens when deciding to select the out-of-town firm. As a citizen, Rosenthal said, “I don’t have that basic information to say this is a rational choice.” He also said he had heard good things about Community Technology Network. “I just really want to understand why we are going to be cutting loose a long-term community partner – what’s the basis for that decision?”

But Council Member Ellen Troxclair pointed out that Community Technology Network received more points on the evaluation matrix in the areas of prior experience and personnel, cost, and proposed solution. According to the matrix, Austin Free-Net received 74 points and Community Technology Network received 80 points. The local group got 10 extra points for local business presence and the national group received no points in that category.

Several community members, including former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, also spoke to Council in favor of Free-Net. “I think that when we try to serve the people of Austin we ought to use Austin people to help serve them,” Delco said.

Noting that she had been on the board of Austin Free-Net, Delco said it was important for the provider to be in proximity to housing projects and to the elementary schools that would need the services “and in the heart of a minority neighborhood.”

She added, “It doesn’t make any sense to bring a company in from California to serve an Austin community when there’s already a company meeting that need and who depends upon the community to participate and to learn and profit from what they are trying to do. … For people who depend on computer literacy that can’t afford computers, Free-Net is a very, very important and valuable resource. … This is a very important decision and I hope you will honor the commitment of Free-Net and retain their services in this area.”

Elizabeth Quintanilla, a board member of Austin Free-Net and a former member of the city’s telecommunications commission, said she was very concerned about an apparent reduction in digital literacy services that would occur if Community Technology Network took over the program.

Under the current contract, Quintanilla said, Austin Free-Net was providing services at 31 sites in Austin. However, Community Technology Network would only be serving seven locations. She said she was particularly concerned that the national company had no experience with Austin’s low-income community.

Kami Griffiths, the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Community Technology Network, told Council how working as a volunteer computer trainer had changed her life because she saw how computer skills could result in upward mobility.

“The last 10 years, Community Technology Network has developed a very successful model of partnering with nonprofits, government agencies and local businesses to provide basic digital skills training in a variety of languages. A majority of the training we provided is offered by volunteers. … In the last year, our trainers provided 30,000 training sessions at our 50 partner locations. … Community Technology Network is committed to provide those assets in Austin, not just in partnership with the city through this contract but also in partnership with affordable housing providers, senior centers, libraries and any agency that works to help adults and seniors reach their goals,” Griffiths said.

In response to a question from Troxclair, James Scarboro of the Purchasing Department said, “When you’re contemplating creation of a contract under Texas state procurement statutes, our obligation is to follow the procedure that we apply throughout the year, and from what I can see in this process, which was protested and did go to an independent hearing officer – the process that was applied was consistent with how we perform (requests for proposal).” He concluded that Community Technology Network had provided a better proposal at a lower price and that was why it was being recommended.

Pool indicated early in the discussion that she would be making a motion to postpone consideration of the contract to the next Council meeting on March 1. Scarboro and Rondella Hawkins, the city’s telecommunications officer, seemed to be caught off guard by the idea that the item might be postponed. Hawkins and Scarboro said the current contract expires on Feb. 28, but that there would be a gap of some undefined length of time if the new contract were not approved before March 1. Pool questioned how much of a gap there might be, but that question was never answered, at least publicly.

After an executive session, Pool made a motion to postpone the item to March 1, with only Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Troxclair voting against the motion.

This story has been changed since publication. We originally reported that Community Technology Network was a Californian company. Though it was started in the Bay area, CTN is a national company. Photo by John Flynn.

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