Macon council agrees to buy Harris radio system for $7.7 million

Macon City Council voted 13-2 Tuesday night to buy an 800-megahertz emergency radio system from Harris Corp. RF Communications for $7.7 million, the latest turn in a contentious process that involved allegations of a tainted bid process.

At Councilman Larry Schlesinger’s suggestion, the full council overruled its Appropriations Committee, where the Harris bid failed Monday in a 2-2 vote.

Representatives of rival bidder Motorola alleged that the bid process was tainted by city Information Technology Director Steve Masteller’s personal feelings. But Schlesinger on Tuesday said Macon Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration had done everything reasonable to eliminate influence.

A review committee recommended the Harris system unanimously, and most of its members were emergency service workers who will actually use the radios. Schlesinger said he hears urgency from command staff of city police, firefighters and Bibb County sheriff’s deputies.

“If there’s one problem that each of them constantly complains about, it’s the radio system for public safety throughout the city and the county,” he said.

Much of the current system, through which emergency agencies communicate, came to the city secondhand from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It frequently breaks down, and the special purpose local option sales tax that voters approved in November 2011 includes $8 million to replace it.

Harris and Motorola were the only bidders to provide the system, and the committee recommended Harris’ proposal for complete replacement instead of the cheaper Motorola proposal to buy some new equipment and upgrade other components.

Motorola representatives alleged that Masteller was angered by the firing of a longtime Motorola employee who had worked closely with Macon staff, and in retaliation saw to it that the bid went to Harris.

Macon interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker said Masteller was removed from participating in the bid evaluation and was reprimanded.

Schlesinger said he didn’t know what more could be expected and noted the people who will use the system favor Harris.

Councilman Henry Ficklin openly doubted the administration’s account that Masteller had no role in the choice, and he sought to link his suspicions about the radio choice to historic unfairness to minorities.

“This process raised a question of our ability to fairly conduct the affairs of the city of Macon,” he said.

Councilman Henry Gibson, a retired Macon police detective, said he also was concerned about the process. But he said the priority should be fulfilling emergency workers’ needs quickly.

“The main thing is that we get this equipment operable before somebody gets hurt,” Gibson said.

He and Councilman Virgil Watkins joined Ficklin and Councilwoman Elaine Lucas in opposing a full council vote on the radio system buy. But when that vote came, only Ficklin and Lucas voted against the actual purchase.

Pension legal changes

Though they’ve sparked angry debate for months, changes to the legal language behind the Macon Fire and Police Employees Retirement System plan passed a council vote without opposition Tuesday.

The IRS requires some alterations to the plan’s legal terms to keep it “qualified.” If the amended plan isn’t sent to the IRS by Oct. 2, pension recipients could face higher taxes. But exactly how to word the changes has been argued over for months by the pension board, council and a tag-team of attorneys for all sides.

Some retirees, led by current pension board member Jimmy Hartley and former board member Charlie Bishop, repeatedly have alleged that Reichert is trying to cut off or diminish their benefits through sneaky legal maneuvers. Reichert has emphatically denied that’s the case.

Gibson said he struggled with the issue for some time, but an Aug. 14 conference call with pension-law expert Jeff Banish allayed his fears.

“I think it’s time to go ahead and move forward and approve this,” Gibson said.

The ordinance must pass during two consecutive regular council meetings before it’s sent to the IRS. Reichert said he wants a second vote Sept. 4.

Second Street manager

Clay Murphey was approved in a 14-1 council vote to manage projects in the redevelopment of Second Street for two years. Only Lucas voted against his contract for $75,000 a year, which will be paid by a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.

The SPLOST includes $8 million for the first phase of turning Second Street into a pedestrian-friendly corridor stretching from across the Ocmulgee River through downtown and curving up to Mercer University. Turning the street into an avenue lined with shops and high-tech businesses is a major goal of Reichert’s. Murphey, a developer who worked several months as Reichert’s interim spokesman, is tasked with coordinating public and private initiatives in the corridor.

Rosa Parks Square

A resolution from Councilman Ed DeFore to make sure the grassy expanse across Poplar Street from City Hall is known as “Rosa Parks Square” rather than “Rosa Parks Park” passed unanimously. Councilman Rick Hutto said that despite some earlier confusion, the official name was already “Rosa Parks Square.” But DeFore’s resolution also calls for a new marker that includes historical information about Parks.

Lucas endorsed that, but she said she’d like to see other monuments the city puts up include more details to serve as history lessons for children.

Terminal Station lease

The council voted unanimously to extend Macon Transit Authority’s contract to manage Terminal Station for another six months.

“That’s an action that doesn’t cost us a penny, I’m glad to say,” Hutto said.

The city is waiting on clearance from state and federal agencies to rebid the management agreement, since those agencies provided grants to renovate the building. The transit authority -- which has offices and a terminal there -- agreed to manage the historic building at no cost to the city, at least until those issues are cleared up.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.