By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Michael Youngwirth and Esteban Neely knew so little about how the county commission operates that on July 24, the day the Oracle contract was to be heard, they arrived at the commission chambers at 8:00 a.m., more than an hour before the meeting would actually start. They weren't sure what to expect, so they sat and waited. And waited. And waited.
They were unaware of the heated discussions taking place that morning, the result of Assistant County Attorney Hugo Benitez having discovered the Oracle deal mysteriously on the agenda as a "contract modification." They couldn't even find the item on the agenda.
After waiting more than thirteen hours, Youngwirth and Neely finally saw the software contract come up for discussion. As expected Randy Witt explained to commissioners that the item was now a bid waiver, not a contract modification. In his presentation, however, Witt never told commissioners that his review committee had recommended PeopleSoft, despite his earlier agreement to do so. "The working group was very impressed with the PeopleSoft product," Witt said. "Not to say that we weren't impressed with Oracle as well." At one point he allowed that the committee "favored PeopleSoft," but he was never completely candid.
Witt's hedging may be understandable. According to several people close to him, he is under tremendous pressure from the manager's office and believes his job may be in jeopardy. Two weeks before the county commission meeting, Witt was informed he will no longer report directly to the county manager but instead will answer to the manager's assistant, Tom David. In addition the manager removed from Witt's responsibility a county department that previously had reported to him. Was the manager sending him a message? "The manager wanted to reorganize," Witt answers sheepishly.
At the commission meeting Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who had just discovered that the review committee actually recommended PeopleSoft, asked Witt why he favored Oracle if PeopleSoft had a better product. She wondered why Witt hadn't continued negotiating with PeopleSoft to see if they could match or beat Oracle's price.
Apparently unhappy with the direction Sorenson was taking the discussion, Shiver interrupted. He attempted to dismiss the notion that PeopleSoft was the committee's clear favorite. "The technical folks that looked at that," he said, "some of them were divided." But neither Witt nor Shiver disclosed that the actual vote for PeopleSoft was 9-1.
When Sorenson began asking questions about price, Shiver once again intervened. "Randy and I had several conversations about not being able to compare apples to apples with different scales and different pricing methods for the different companies," he explained. But neither Shiver nor Witt revealed to commissioners that PeopleSoft's price had been artificially inflated as a worst-case scenario.
The manager was hiding something else. On July 20 he had received a letter from PeopleSoft saying it was ready to reduce its price. The company noted that under the plan to install software in all county departments, Oracle was supposedly $300,000 cheaper than PeopleSoft. Since the county had great interest in that expanded plan, PeopleSoft offered to drop its price by $350,000, thereby beating Oracle's price.
One county official involved in the discussions says he grew concerned when he discovered that the manager was withholding the PeopleSoft letter from commissioners. "He just kept that to himself," says the official. "He kept that a secret. At the very least he should have disclosed it to the commission and let them decide if they wanted to keep the negotiations going."
Sorenson wasn't the only commissioner expressing skepticism. Barbara Carey-Shuler and Gwen Margolis both said the process appeared to be seriously flawed. The commission decided to postpone the item until their next meeting, September 11. "I don't think you were ready to bring this here today," Carey-Shuler chided Shiver.
Watching the commission meeting, Esteban Neely says, was an amazing experience. He did have a chance to make a few brief remarks to commissioners during the debate, but most seemed to ignore him.
With the protracted meeting finally over and the contract debate postponed, Youngwirth and Neely concluded they would need help to fight back effectively. And it wasn't just a matter of grabbing the attention of commissioners on the dais. Much earlier in the review process, for example, they had requested a meeting with the county manager but were rebuffed and told Shiver wouldn't see them. On the other hand, the manager did sit down with Oracle representatives in a meeting arranged and attended by Rodney Barreto.
"We decided to hire our own lobbyists," Neely explains. They aren't taking any chances this time. He says they plan to assemble a high-powered team that will include Armando Gutierrez, Eston "Dusty" Melton, former county manager Sergio Pereira, and Esther Monzon-Aguirre. "I want this deal," says Neely, "and I don't want to see all the effort put in by my company and PeopleSoft just go by the wayside. We won this contract on the merits. We should be awarded this contract."
Shiver seems unfazed by the controversy. On August 17 a meeting was held in his office to discuss how to proceed. Among those attending were Shiver, Tom David, Randy Witt, and Ted Lucas, head of the procurement department. Both Witt and Lucas told Shiver they believed the process should start over and the search for a software vendor should be open to all companies expressing interest. Shiver rejected that idea.