A consultant hired by West Palm Beach to negotiate for a new police radio system recommended Monday that the city spend up to $5.6 million to upgrade a system that has already cost the city $5 million but has never been activated.
Mayor Jeri Muoio, who for two years has said she wants the city to go on its own radio system and not remain with the multi-city consortium that runs the OpenSky radio system, now says she favors the recommendation.
Under the consultant’s plan, West Palm Beach would remain with the consortium, which includes Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, Juno Beach, Palm Beach and Atlantis, but would run its own, more advanced, “P25” system while the other cities run OpenSky, a system also made by Harris.
West Palm Beach and the other cities would share some equipment, including the core processor that will run both OpenSky and the P25 system. P25 systems are designed to be open platform systems that can communicate better with other systems, including the county’s Motorola system.
Consultant Todd Mechler said the hybrid option would be cheaper for the city than ditching the consortium and vendor Harris Corp.
The PalmBeach Post reported in May 2011 that WestPalmBeach officials had buried reports documenting problems with OpenSky in 2009 and 2010.
Following The Post stories, The PalmBeach County Office of Inspector General launched an audit of the consortium. The results, released in December, raised questions about the purchase, operation and oversight of the OpenSky system by the consortium, but also found that the consortium had worked effectively with Harris to overcome early problems and get OpenSky operational in all the cities but West Palm Beach, which has taller, denser buildings that can interfere with radio reception.
At stake is what officers say is an important tool that is key to police work — and to keeping them safe. Former WestPalmBeach Police Chief Delsa Bush, an ardent OpenSky supporter, resigned in 2011 after disagreements with Muoio over the system.
But no action was taken at Monday’s city commission workshop. The discussion turned into political theater between Muoio and commissioners two weeks before an election in which Muoio is backing the opponent of Commissioner Shanon Materio.
Commissioners Materio, Kimberly Mitchell and Keith James — who have been battling Muoio on various issues — blasted Muoio for scheduling a 1-hour workshop on an important topic without prepping commissioners with information in advance. Muoio said she couldn’t give commissioners material in advance because that would have made the information public record and she said there was sensitive information that the vendors did not want public yet.
“It’s ridiculous to expect us to digest information in a 100-page report in a matter of a 20-minute oral presentation,” James said.
The commissioners postponed the discussion until they meet individually with the consultant and consortium members.
After Mitchell said commissioners can’t trust some information coming from city staff, Muoio responded: “You and I know this whole conversation is political.”
Materio later said the issue was not political but about transparency, arguing that the consortium had the information before city commissioners.
Commissioner Sylvia Moffett, normally Muoio’s one ally on the dais, also blasted the process but for different reason — Moffett has been the one commissioner adamant that the city should leave the consortium.
“OpenSky hasn’t worked for 10 years and we’ve worked with Harris and we’ve been paying Harris a lot of money,” Moffett said.
After the meeting, Palm Beach Gardens Police Colonel Ernie Carr, one of the consortium’s leaders, called the proposal “the perfect solution.”
“It gives an opportunity for other cities to come in who want to do P25 and run their own system and share in the cost and lower the cost,” Carr said.
West Palm Beach pays the consortium $200,000 in annual dues and if the city were to drop out, the cost for the remaining consortium members could rise by more than 70 percent.
Carr said a new agreement would have to be drafted but that West Palm may be able to lower its dues if the city takes responsibility of its own maintenance and operation.
Lou Penque, the head of West Palm Beach’s police union, urged the city not to enter into a new deal with Harris or the consortium, saying the union has no confidence in the company or the consortium.
“It sounds to me like they want to take a P25 system and squeeze it through a gateway with the OpenSky system and to the best of my knowledge that has never been done before,” Penque said. “Why should we be the guinea pigs?”
Mechler, the consultant, said commissioners still have the option of putting a system out to bid. But any outside bid, he said, would be more expensive than Harris’ bid and could delay the process a year or more.
Officials from Motorola, Harris’ rival, disagree. West Palm currently runs a Motorola system from the 1980s, and Motorola lobbyist Gary Brandenburg said his company gave the city an unsolicited bid of $2.9 million to run its P25 system with more radio reception than Harris’ proposal.
Another option, latching onto PalmBeach County’s system, would cost the city an estimated $2.5 million, but the city would have no control over that system. Also, Muoio said, it’s not clear when the county will migrate to P25 and she said the city needs to update its current radio system.
ABOUT THE PROPOSAL
After already spending $5 million on a police radio system that has been installed but never activated, West Palm Beach should spend an additional $3.6 million to $5.6 million to remain in a consortium with Palm Beach Gardens and four other cities, a consultant tells the city.