Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tangled Web(site)

Council meetings are usually entertaining and last Tuesday's was no exception. Sat through the morning show and left during the intermission (executive session and lunch break.) Didn't make it back before the afternoon show had started and I missed one of the most entertaining parts. An issue that I really have issues with: the City website.

The contract for the current city website was approved back in 2004. The current site is based on a proprietary system from It took a while for the site to get usable and I have several emails back and forth with city staff on problems and suggestions. Today, 8 years later there are still problems with features such as credit card information handling and keeping the agenda packets on the website. Public information staff has done a lot of work like connecting the city website with social media sites like facebook and twitter and work arounds like using slideshare to hold city council packets and information that won't fit on the website. City staff has done a lot of work to get information out and overcome the limits of the current website. I've also heard from staff members that use the system that it's a royal pain to deal with. I'd heard and seen enough problems with the site that I have been trying to get the city to change system and philosophies for several years. Earlier this year the city finally went out with an RFP for a new website.

In May, they came to council with a request to authorize a contract, not to exceed $40,000 to Vision Internet of California. From the memo in the agenda packet "Financial Impact: The costs for the website design, hosting, and training staff will be $40,000.00." A bit high but not totally unexpected. I remember this being presented to the city council as a complete, turnkey operation. Vision Internet would design and maintain the site, migrate everything from the old site to the new one, train staff to operate it, and host it on their own high availability servers. City council approved the following from the memo in the agenda packet.

  • "a. Approving a recommendation from the Evaluation Team to award RFP: PI-01-
    11/Website Design contract to Vision Internet, in an amount not to exceed $40,000.00
    for design of a new, custom website for the City of San Angelo, and authorizing the City Manager to negotiate and execute a contract with the recommended vendor
  • b. Authorizing a budget amendment for the project funds in an amount not to exceed
    $40,000.00 to cover costs of designing the new website, training staff, and hosting the
    newly designed site."
Looked like a done deal, and I  was hopeful a new website, at least a beta version, might be a Christmas present for the citizens of San Angelo. Last Tuesday, Nov. 20th, there was a budget amendment on the agenda that included $90,000 to negotiate a contract and amend the budget for the new website. Wait a minute. Hadn't this had been approved back in May? All of it including the budget amendment? And what was the extra $50,000 for? Simplest explanation would have been that too much time had elapsed and it needed re-approval. And maybe the $90k was just a typo and $40k was the real deal. I watched the video, and no, staff was saying that $90k was the true amount and that the $40k  was only for website design. The extra $50k was needed for training and new, upgraded servers to host the website. Like I said I wish I had been there but the replay on channel 17 was very entertaining. You could tell that staff was caught completely flat footed. The excuses they gave for the increase don't make sense when you look at what was in the May 1st agenda packet and what was recorded in the minutes. Training costs were included in the original proposal, and there was no need for additional servers at the city because the website would be hosted on Vision Internet servers. Package price, tax title and license $40k as approved in May. One further point I found out is that Vision Internet doesn't sell hardware. If there were additional servers and equipment required, that would need to be an additional contract, probably as part of the city's normal server upgrade program.

This highlights two problems our new city manager must deal with. First, staff has developed a habit of bringing parts of projects to city council piece meal and without complete project information. This time they tried to say that what was approved in May was just a portion of the total project and it was only last Tuesday they were providing information on the rest of the project. Earlier in meeting a similar situation happened on an agreement with SAPAC. The rental/lease agreement for office space was brought forward as an isolated, stand alone item. There have been some concerns about this agreement expressed at prior council meetings, and without some big picture information on the entire auditorium/city hall renovation project and SAPAC's involvement and contribution commitments it's hard to make a good decision. As presented to the council Tuesday the agreement does look and smell like a giveaway of a major city asset to a politically connected group. Add to that the cost overruns and confusion over whether or not the HVAC plant and landscaping were included in the original package voted on as part of the city hall plaza project and it's easy see how council might be getting a bit irritable. I'm sure they feel like they would if they were buying a new car and as the sales manager is handing the keys he says "Congratulation on your new car. I think now we might want to talk about putting tires on it." 
Now that I've wandered into mistakes made in handling the website contract so far, let me make a couple of suggestions. There needs to be a shift in philosophy by the city about the internet. Functionally, the city doesn't have "a" website. The main address is effectively a portal into a series of other internet applications and sites. I could get long winded on this (actually did but erased it) but the city doesn't need a Swiss Army Knife type of website. What the city needs is a functional toolbox that allows people to exchange information and do business using those internet tools, and visible website is really just the box that keeps all these specialized tools where they can be used efficiently and effectively. This needs to be an open standards based toolbox so that as new tools are needed and developed we don't have to keep going back to a single source and hope they have an adequate tool.

Let's get ASU and their computer science department involved. They have expertise and equipment. They might be interested in doing the city's internet projects as a research and training vehicle. 
Get the city involved with projects like Code For America and see what they can surprise us with. 
Go with an open solution, preferably open source, that can help drive down the cost of government and give us greater flexibility to respond quickly in a fast changing world.

We need a new website for the City of San Angelo. We need an updated philosophy on how the city and its citizens use the internet. We need an honest, accurate, and complete plan for the projects that will get us where we need to be long term. What was put before council would barely serve us today and is not what we need for the future. We also need to get staff to keep up and do their homework before they come before city council and keep their story complete and straight.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Daniel in the Lyin Den or Welcome to our new City Manager

Our new City Manager has been here not quite a month, made it through two city council meetings and hasn't snuck back to Eagle Pass yet. He hasn't said much and seems to be taking it all in waiting until he knows the local landscape. I hope that's a sign of good things and that he is just waiting for the right time because there are some major issues he has to deal with.

I'm sure he knew that water would be a major issue when he got here. Bet he thought that reliable water sources would be his number one challenge. Instead we seem to have a number of very public failures with the water department at the center. At Mr. Valenzuela's very first council meeting they tried to sneak by $100,000 for new furniture for the water department. This is in addition to the $200,000 already spent on top of what was budgeted for the city hall renovation. And it doesn't appear that this furniture was to make up for a shortfall of partitions and filing cabinets and a few needed desks. It was a major wholesale replacement with the old furniture, which was obviously still serviceable, spread hither and yon with no accountability throughout other city departments to make up for shortfalls in other offices. Sounds very much to me like staff underestimated their furniture needs several times, and the last time tried to pull a fast one with the water department paying the bill this time. On top of that, required procurement procedures were mostly ignored. This high dollar purchase went forward without required council approval and like kids on a playground, no senior staff personnel saw what happened. We still don't know who signed the purchase order or if it was ever signed. Nice start for your first council meeting wasn't it Daniel?

By the second meeting things were getting even more interesting. Seems there was (maybe still is) a problem with water quality. It's bad that they found the THM levels in our water too high, although the actual health threat is probably not that great. What's more disturbing to me is that it was outside testing that found the problem, not our own testing procedures. The problem sample was from several months ago and just recently were corrective actions taken. Add on the fact that our temporary use of chlorine instead of chloramine probably made the problem worse and we don't really know what affect it had makes me wonder just how good our in-house testing really is. Needs to be looked at closely.

A bit of a side show to the last council meeting, still tied to the water department, is just starting to surface. Seems that an engineer on city staff was relieved for cause with no option for rehire and after a bit of slight of hand to become a private company/subcontractor was back at work as an inspector on the Hickory Pipeline, the city's main long range water project. Doesn't help that the subcontractor is the son of the water department director. Sounds like a problem of ethics and a conflict of interest that needs to be addressed.

As a long term accompaniment to all this there are problems with water bills which start with the new remote reading water meters. There were a lot of advantages claimed for the remote meters including more efficient and accurate results and near real time water usage readings that could alert a customer to potential leaks or other unusual usage patterns. Looking at how well this had worked in other cities (most of which used private contractors to make the switch) we had high hopes that this would be good for our city. Instead we have heard a fairly constant drumbeat of complaints and excuses. In 2005 the city had a chance to get a remote meter system installed for free by Siemens. Their profit, if any, would have come out of operational savings. They would have been on the hook to make the system work right. Instead  our water department has been before the city council asking for big bucks to do the whole project in house. They currently have 2 or 3 years left on the projects and the results so far have been a mixture of confusion, unrealistic water bills, rate increases, excuses and terrible customer service. The much mentioned capability of flagging usage problems doesn't seem to exist yet. Many current bills seem to be "estimates." The transition from an old meter to a new one frequently leads to a usage spike that makes one believe that either meters hadn't been read for a while or that nobody noticed that the meter had been replaced so a new starting reading should have been used instead of the last reading from the old meter. What ever the cause, our citizens and water customers are not being treated right and there are systemic problems that need to be fixed.

Which brings me to another big issue. One that hurts our economic growth and prosperity. Our city government does a lousy job at customer service. The problems in water billing are making news. Look at what happens in planning, permitting, code enforcement and inspections. I've been told that the process is like being in a pinball machine, being bounced around from desk to desk and department to department. Getting close to the end of the process only to be flipped back to another round of bouncing off desks. A process that takes one to maybe two weeks in other cities in the region takes months here. And I frequently hear that projects will almost get completed and an inspector will come out and change the rules. The plans for a roof or a wall that were approved by everyone in city hall before the project even started will get changed at the last minute by some inspector in the field which causes major added expenses and delays. Cheaper to make the changes (even major ones) then to delay business too long and pay a bunch of money to lawyers. Word of this spreads around and keeps business away. And some within city hall will say that used to happen in the past but we have changed. All I can say is what I'm hearing about are recent incidents. The Friday meeting results don't seem to be filtering down to the people on the desks and in the field.

I have been rambling on a bit here and still have only brushed on some of the high points so let me finish by saying again Welcome Daniel. Enjoy your time here in San Angelo. I hope you brought your Kevlar. You just might need it.