Emergency radio buy stumbles in Macon council committee; bias alleged

A proposal to buy a $7.7 million emergency radio system from Harris RF Communications failed 2-2 in a Macon City Council committee Monday after rival supplier Motorola accused city Information Technology staff of slanting the selection process.

The council’s Appropriations Committee also voted 2-2 to shoot down Councilman Henry Ficklin’s motion to hire a consultant to decide which company to do business with.

In the end, Committee Chairman Tom Ellington urged Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration to “set up a new process” for buying and installing the radio system as soon as possible, but Ellington didn’t say what that process might be.

It remained unclear after the meeting to interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker, who handled much of the administration’s side of the discussion Monday.

Councilman Virgil Watkins joined Ficklin in voting for a consultant and against approving the Harris proposal, while Ellington and Councilwoman Beverly K. Olson voted the other way on each motion. Councilwoman Elaine Lucas was absent from the committee.

The special purpose local option sales tax Bibb County voters approved in November 2011 includes $8 million to replace the 800 megahertz radio system used by local emergency services. Some of the current system came secondhand from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The system now fails frequently, and public safety officials said its replacement is a vital priority. An eight-member committee with representatives of all city and county emergency agencies and the city Information Technology Department examined proposals from longtime city supplier Motorola and newer rival Harris. Harris was the committee’s unanimous choice, said Joe Taylor, manager of communications for the city IT department, who served on the committee.

Some of Monday’s argument concerned specifics of the rival bids, but most of the debate revolved around IT Director Steve Masteller, who was not present for the meeting. A longtime Motorola employee who had worked closely with the city for years was fired in the past year, and Masteller reacted angrily. Both sides agreed on that.

“Mr. Masteller bragged that he controlled the $8 million SPLOST, that Motorola must rehire the person who was fired, that the boss who fired him had to be fired, and that Motorola had ‘two feet in con-crete,’ ’’ said Macon attorney Hubert Lovein, representing Motorola.

When previously asked for a response to Motorola’s allegation, Masteller deferred comment to Walker.

Monday, Walker said Masteller’s anger stemmed from a “total misunderstanding,” in which a Motorola representative “inquired about (Masteller’s) pedigree.” Walker said he thinks the question was about Masteller’s professional credentials, but Masteller took it to be an insinuation about his family.

Walker said he removed Masteller from the bid review process, though he was copied on some later e-mails.

“Mr. Masteller got a written reprimand for his actions as well,” he said.

Ficklin openly doubted whether Walker’s account was true, and the councilman said Masteller’s bias inevitably would influence his subordinates, even though he himself was off the selection committee.

“This decision was made based on an employment decision, and it is wrong,” Ficklin said.

Taylor denied that Masteller influenced the committee’s choice.

“Harris had a better idea. It’s that simple,” Taylor said.

Harris’ proposal met and exceeded what emergency workers wanted, including automatic switching to a second control center if one goes out in an emergency, while some of Motorola’s bid didn’t meet what the specifications asked for, Taylor said.

Rick Rigsbee, area sales manager for Motorola, disputed Taylor’s description and said some of the features now described as important weren’t in the initial specifications.

Lovein urged the city to hire a consultant to make the choice, using some of the SPLOST money since both bids came in under the assigned $8 million.

Ficklin raised the specter of a lawsuit from Motorola if the process isn’t redone. But James Potter, regional sales manager for Harris, urged the council to rely on its committee of radio system users. Both companies had plenty of opportunity to ask questions, he said. When Macon and other cities bought from Motorola in the past, Motorola relied on local judgment, Potter said.

“So I do feel it’s odd now that a vendor’s not selected to scream and cry ‘Get a consultant, get a consultant,’ ’’ he said.

Watkins asked how much a consultant might cost. When the city of Rome in north Georgia made a similar choice, a consultant cost $300,000, Walker said. But Rigsbee interjected that one could be hired for $50,000 to $250,000.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.