Feature: Wednesday, March 6, 2003



It was Friday afternoon on the last day of February, but the feeling around parts of City Hall was more like a combination of homecoming and the last day of school. Word had flown among information technicians and auditors, current and former employees, department heads, and others: Dave Miller and Terry Bay were out. When a fire drill took workers outside the building, it provided everyone a chance to compare notes: Had Police Chief Ralph Mendoza really escorted Miller, the head of IT Solutions, to the curb? Was a SWAT team really guarding the doors and the keyboards of the information technology department?

The strange reign that, at many points during the past two years, seemed to have turned the city’s IT Solutions department into a hall of smoke and mirrors is apparently over. A controversial deal that called into question the integrity of the city’s most crucial computer functions has been stopped — in part, observers believe, by the persistence of some current and former city workers who repeatedly urged the Fort Worth City Council to delve into questions of fouled-up computer projects and projected savings that turned into millions of dollars of extra spending.

Much of that extra money was going to a company called Avizion Technologies Group. Avizion, until Feb. 28, had an enviable position in the IT department. Called in originally as a consultant to look into the operations of the department, Avizion then was hired to help fix the things it had deemed to be problems and was allowed to bid on contracts for which it had drawn up specifications. Terry Bay, an Avizion official, was put in charge of part of the department, with workers from her own company under her supervision.

Along the way, veteran city workers who had received glowing evaluations and spent years learning the intricacies of the city’s mainframe computer were ousted without warning — replaced, in many cases, by Avizion contract workers with less knowledge and experience, for whom the city paid more money. In a final insult, IT officials asked police to investigate several workers for alleged sabotage of the system — “sabotage” that turned out to be problems either caused by the way in which the veteran workers were removed or by a basic misunderstanding by higher-ups of the city computer operation.

Miller, who said last week that his resignation was voluntary, could not be reached this week for further comment for this story. Bay did not return phone calls seeking comment.

“A conflict of interest was inherent from the beginning,” said Greg Shirey, systems programmer and analyst who was among those laid off. “This was long overdue.”

The press release that went out Feb. 28 gave only the barest hints of the turmoil that has been going on. City Manager Gary Jackson announced that Miller had resigned, that the city was giving Avizion 30 days notice that its contract was being terminated, and that various “reviews” — internal and external audits — of the Avizion contract and overall IT operation were under way “as part of an ongoing effort to improve technology services.” Two other IT officials under Miller have been temporarily “taken out of the rotation,” city public information officer Pat Svacina said; their eventual re-assignment will be decided by the interim leadership team that is now overseeing the department.

Svacina said that, while no criminal charges are contemplated in connection with the IT department, a police detective “is sitting in with the transition team” to evaluate whether there might have been criminal actions. “It’s a precautionary measure,” Svacina said.

Improving technology services, of course, is what Miller was asked to do in 2001 when the city hired him from a Louisiana energy company as part of Jackson’s campaign to privatize more city operations. “They wanted someone with a private-sector background to take their IT department to the next level,” he told Fort Worth Weekly last March. He told city council members and others that he turned to Avizion to help evaluate the IT department, in part because he had worked with Bay on an earlier job. The ITdepartment maintains computer systems and programs and helps other departments improve their own work with new computer applications.

According to filings with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, Avizion was only formed in 2000. Based in Addison, it bills itself on its web site as a kind of broker, helping match up technology workers and technology employers. A person who answered the phone there declined to give Bay’s title or describe her role with the company.

The controversy began when, after diagnosing shortcomings in the IT department, Avizion was then given a $678,000 contract with the city for staffing services. It was not put out for bid — a practice allowed under state law for technology vendors.

“That disturbed me from the get-go — they benefited from their very own advice — ‘Here’s what you need to do and we will do it,’” said council member Wendy Davis, perhaps Avizion’s most persistent critic on the council. “It reeks of conflict of interest. It’s not the way we do things.” Interviewed before Miller’s departure, Davis said it had been difficult to get Miller to focus on that objection. “He turned around and did it again after we made a big issue of it,” she said. Avizion was awarded another contract to perform mainframe systems support. “They bid on that. Well, they wrote the [specifics] for the proposal,” Davis said. Former IT workers said that, once Avizion was brought in, department managers cut off contact with many other vendors. “They wouldn’t even return their phone calls,” one ex-city worker said.

But council members, perhaps intimidated by the technical jargon of computers and complex arrangements with Avizion, took another year to put their feet down.

In fall of 2001, four administrators in the IT department were asked to resign or retire. Bay was brought in, at a cost of $16,000 for four to six months of work, to temporarily replace one of them. Longtime workers said they began to feel like the outsiders in the department and were given the cold shoulder by Miller, Bay, and the people Miller hired as his top assistants. Then there were the strange touches — many people in the department knew that Miller had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and joked that it wasn’t a good idea to contradict him in meetings because he might be “packin’ heat.”

In February 2002, another shoe dropped. Ten IT workers were laid off, including people with 15 years and more of experience — people who knew the intricacies of the city’s mainframe computer. The city council was presented with the firings as a fait accompli — and told that the move would save money by replacing the city employees with contract labor that was cheaper and had better skills.

Placement of its workers with the city benefited Avizion financially — the company kept a portion of the paychecks before passing the rest on to the workers. Two Avizion contract employees actually worked under Bay in the department’s network division.

The fired workers said alleged deficiencies in their skills were never discussed with them; several said the city’s stated policy of offering laid-off workers first chance at other city openings was either not followed or it was apparent that the interviews were shams. One ex-IT worker sought after by other departments said Miller actively tried to block her from being hired elsewhere in the city.

Joe Freeman’s family has worked for the city of Fort Worth for the last 100 years. He himself had five years experience in the IT Solutions department, garnering good reviews while he advanced from a beginning to a senior position. “I fully expected to retire from the city [employment] like my father and grandfather,” he said. But today, he’s wary enough that he asked his real name not be used in this story — Freeman is a pseudonym.

The hiring of Avizion in 2001 to provide open-ended contract services for the IT department didn’t seem to affect Freeman’s job, which frequently involved helping council members and other higher-ups use their city computers. “I considered myself a valuable member of the team,” Freeman said. So when he was called to a meeting in February 2002, at which layoffs were to be announced, “I thought I was there to lend my technical support” to other people in the transition. “Then partway through the meeting, they took my badge and cell phone and pager ... it was the biggest surprise of my life.”

For the next several months, while he tried to deal with the layoff, Freeman said he continued to field calls from his buddies in the IT department. They still needed his help, Freeman said, because the Avizion worker who replaced him (one of a succession) was not an expert in his old job. Although capable in many ways, the Avizion worker “was very unprepared,” to do that job, Freeman said. Oddly enough, in a layoff that was supposedly about saving money, he learned that the Avizion contract worker who replaced him was being paid about $89,000 a year, compared to his own salary of slightly more than $50,000. (The contract worker didn’t keep the whole $89,000 — Avizion kept part of each contract worker’s pay.) About six weeks after he was laid off, Freeman heard Miller explain to the city council that the extra money was needed because the people who were laid off hadn’t had the “skill sets” needed to do the job right. “I did not understand the business decisions made by Miller,” Freeman said. “They did not seem to make monetary sense, to me.”

The part that Freeman said “scared me to death,” however, wasn’t just the prospect of finding a new job in a flooded tech market. It was the police investigation. Officially, the first notice he had of it was the day he received a letter from Police Chief Mendoza, telling him he had been exonerated.

Of what? Apparently, of doing his job. Freeman said that, as part of his “trouble-shooter” job at the city, he kept, on his computer, e-mail “profiles” for city council members and high-ranking administrators — a routine procedure. “My guess is, they may have thought I was reading the e-mail of high-ranking people,” he said.

According to Freeman, another highly skilled worker who was laid off was also investigated for sabotage — apparently because IT officials deleted her computer system sign-on while programs were still running under her name, causing the programs to crash. A source said that the worker tried to explain to Miller and others what needed to be done, in her absence, to keep the programs running properly, but that she was told it was no longer her concern.

A year later, Freeman, who has one child in college, still has not found a new job. “I’m still looking,” he said. “I have exhausted unemployment, exhausted my retirement funds, exhausted my bank accounts. I’m in pretty tough shape.”

Around the world, computer literacy is growing practically at the speed of light. But the vast majority of those computer users, and even most computer experts, “read” personal computers — not mainframes.

Part of what’s been going on in the city’s IT department over the last few years has been an effort to move city computer functions off the mainframe and onto networks of PCs. Not everyone agrees with that move — mainframes, far from being the huge, slow, unreliable devices of 10 or 20 years ago, are now fast, powerful, reliable, and more secure than PCs, one expert said.

A long list of past and current information technology workers said that, after February 2002, the city’s mainframe faced a double whammy. First, the new leadership in the IT department, as one laid-off worker said, was convinced that “Microsoft could run the whole city. I had 16 years experience. I kept telling them, ‘You won’t be able to do it’” because PC programming is not powerful enough to handle the city’s huge databases. “They told me to shut up,” the ex-worker said.

Second, with the layoffs, the ranks of people familiar with the city mainframe were stretched thin. Maintaining a mainframe is complicated — its operating systems need to be upgraded anywhere from every six months to every few years. When the basic operating system is upgraded, other software components frequently need to be upgraded as well, to stay in step. At each point along the way, the new systems must be tested to make sure that programs are operating as intended. Such upgrades can take weeks or months. If proper testing isn’t done, information can get lost — perhaps permanently.

Mainframes also typically do not need the frequent “rebooting” of PCs. It takes longer to bring a mainframe back up to speed after it has crashed. If it happens often, there’s usually a problem.

With many of the city’s own mainframe veterans having been laid off, Miller asked the council in March 2002 to approve an $831,000 annual contract with Avizion to do almost all the major work associated with the mainframe. Miller told the council that the mainframe had not been properly maintained and that some systems had been improperly installed — even though the systems had been installed by IBM. Greg Shirey, the former mainframe support veteran who had been among those laid off, repeatedly told council members that the information being given to them about the mainframe was riddled with errors, both technical and non-technical. One important point that he and others made: Some of the lack of mainframe maintenance for which the fired city employees were being blamed was work that they had asked to be allowed to do — but had been told to put it on hold.

City officials in other departments who have worked with Avizion contract workers said many of them are hardworking and knowledgeable — but not necessarily about the areas in which they were being asked to work. Repeatedly, current and former IT workers said the Avizion folks seemed clueless about the mainframe. “To them it was just a big ol’ PC that you just slap a CD in to upgrade it,” one man said. “They didn’t have a real notion of what it took to maintain it.”

Another fired database administrator, generally regarded as top-notch, said Terry Bay at one point talked bewilderingly about wanting to have all the files on the mainframe renamed. “It would have taken thousands of hours,” the ex-administrator said.

The council, already uneasy over the department’s close relationship with Avizion, balked at the six-figure contract. The following month, Miller came back with a proposal that was mere pocket change by comparison. The council agreed to pay Avizion $64,000 to upgrade the mainframe systems. Three major components of the upgrade were to be finished by July or August.

The pain of the mainframe transition was being felt well beyond the ranks of layoffs and unhappy workers in the IT department itself. In a series of e-mails in April, workers in various departments complained about the disruption to customer service and other duties that happened because the mainframe was so frequently down. In some cases, the City of Arlington had to dispatch Fort Worth’s emergency calls.

But in September, the “remediation” still wasn’t complete. In October, the department decided to drop one of the three major components of the upgrade, although Avizion’s fees were not reduced accordingly. And even though they couldn’t exactly claim success in those efforts regarding the mainframe, Avizion was found to be the low bidder on another contract — for overall mainframe support.

Finally, in mid-December, three days before the council was due to get an internal auditor’s report on some IT and Avizion issues, the work on one component was completed. Remediation on the third component, now almost a year in the works, still may not be complete.

City workers in several departments, with no axe to grind over lost jobs, no personal dealings with Miller or Terry Bay, were facing a new reality in 2001 and 2002. Finding that work they had asked the IT Solutions department to do was flawed, late, abandoned, or overly expensive, they turned to other methods to get new software written for their needs. They sometimes found that there was no one available in the IT department to pull information they needed off the mainframe. When programs were installed or upgraded, testing was sometimes so rushed or limited that officials feared data was being lost or mangled.

“Prior to the changes [involving Miller and Avizion], we had rebuilt trust and a relationship with IT,” one official in another department said. “After that, there were concerns about their competence. Some projects stalled and went bad.” Other departments, the official said, “had to fix the messes that Avizion had left” in creating new programs or applications for them.

Police Captain Richard Hoeppner, who oversees his department’s staff services, said Avizion contract workers “were good folks. But there were just times when we felt we should have got things delivered that were not delivered.”

A particular problem occurred when the department began to upgrade its programs for accessing crime case information on the mainframe, information that is used by crime analysts. When Avizion workers moved the police department’s data “warehouse” off the mainframe, they left so many parts of the task unfinished or unworkable that the system was down for three weeks. The planned upgrade was eventually abandoned, and another way was found to solve the problems and make the data available to analysts again.

Another problem arose when the Police Department ordered optical scanners, so that photos and other information could be scanned into the computer and distributed electronically, rather than being sent out to various police substations in paper form. The IT department ordered — and installed — the wrong scanners. “I’m still addressing” that issue, Hoeppner said. “I have been told we will get the ones we ordered.”

Chief Mendoza said the three-week lack of crime data concerned him. “It’s extremely vital for us,” he said. “If you can’t get timely and accurate information, you don’t know where to deploy your resources.” He said his department may have “dropped the ball” on the crime data front by not pressing hard enough for a quick resolution.

In the city’s development department, which issues permits to builders and works with developers, business systems coordinator Jeff Watters said that when IT Solutions let go the administrator who worked with Oracle databases, “It forced me to find the resources elsewhere to help.” One project with IT was dropped for months when there was no progress.

The human resources department paid IT Solutions about $80,000 for a new software application to allow officials to record personnel actions electronically, rather than on paper. Avizion workers performed the job. “It doesn’t work to the full capability we initially thought when we contracted for it,” said Trisha Thomason, human resources coordinator. “It’s very limited in its usefulness.”

The result: City departments learned, in many cases, to go around IT Solutions to get their computer work done. They learned from one another, hired other contractors, and also hired their own IT personnel. In the process, some officials said, work got duplicated, and departments were left having to do their own maintenance of programs and databases. The inefficiencies, one official said, were building up to a big mess.

Again, word of the situation got back to the city council. “I have heard that city departments that require service from IT have been very unhappy with those services provided by Avizion,” Wendy Davis said.

In fact, by November, the city council collectively had what City Auditor Costa Triantaphilides called “a heartache” over Avizion and IT. Some council members located the ache lower down, around the region of the pocketbook.

Council members were worried about the complaints they were hearing from other departments, about the still-active issues of conflict of interest, about spending that seemed to mount every few months despite promises of cost-savings — and about a general inability to get straight, understandable answers.

“It just seems like — I’m not saying anybody’s lying, but it upsets me when we ask the staff questions and we get hemmed and hawed around and have to keep asking and asking,” council member Chuck Silcox said. “It seems like something they just don’t want to talk about.”

When IT officials did talk, it seemed to be to ask for more money, as the amount allowed for staff services increased repeatedly, to $2.1 million by last August. “I’ve not seen that we’re getting what we’re paying for,” Silcox said.

Silcox and Davis both were given copies of a spreadsheet prepared by someone outside the IT administration, comparing the salary and benefits that would have been paid to the laid-off IT workers versus the contract costs with Avizion. The annual difference figured by the anonymous critics: about $325,000 for the ex-employees and about $912,720 for the contract workers who replaced them.

In November, the council asked for an internal audit covering several issues. Triantaphilides’ audit team determined that the bid process by which Avizion had been selected for the mainframe maintenance contract was justified.

But the team also had bad news for Avizion, Miller, and the council. Costs of mainframe maintenance, contractor costs and overall spending by the IT department had risen sharply in the last two years. Auditors found inadequate paperwork to back up Avizion’s billings. And they recommended that the city drop the practice of paying placement fees to Avizion for workers that the consultant found who were then hired by the city.

“We hired eight employees” from Avizion, Triantaphilides said Monday. “Four of them stayed less than a year. One stayed only 43 days. And yet the city got no reimbursement” for the $102,100 in placement fees paid to Avizion for those workers. Normal contracts for such placements include a clause to reimburse the city a portion or all of the fee in such situations, he said.

In general, the department’s arrangements with Avizion made the auditor uneasy.

“We do not believe it is good business practice where you have what we saw,” he said. “What we saw was inadequate documentation of the work being performed by Avizion, combined with the situation where Avizion was able to recommend and influence decisions on the work that was done.”

At the December meeting at which the internal audit report was presented, Silcox and Davis also asked the auditor about the salaries spreadsheet. Triantaphilides told them it was not erroneous — but incomplete.

Silcox asked that the spreadsheet be copied and distributed to other city council members. But a few days ago, he said that when he gave up his copy to city staffers so that more copies could be made, “they misplaced it. Now it’s not available to me.”

City Manager Jackson told the council that salary costs would have gone up if the laid-off workers had been retained. And, he said, if the city is getting “more competent people” for the same or higher price, it’s a “better value.” Several of the laid-off workers recalled that statement with bitterness, when the Weekly interviewed them.

The council agreed with Triantaphilides’ suggestion that a consultant versed in IT issues be hired to do an outside audit of the department. The Premis Consulting Group from Chicago is completing that audit now, and it’s due to be delivered in a few weeks.

The city manager, who had publicly been supportive of Miller and his team, was guarded in his comments Monday.

Asked about Avizion’s performance, Jackson said only, “We are terminating the contract. We feel that by putting a new team in place we will find ways to produce better results ... and bring new critical eyes to review the service delivery.”

Is he rethinking the idea of putting critical computer systems in the hands of private industry, outside city government? “I’m going to appreciate the Premis Consulting Group’s expertise and knowledge in this area,” he said. “They are in process of evaluating the use of consultants and privatization. So I’ll defer to their conclusions. ... I will have an open mind to what they recommend.”

Triantaphilides said he believes the actions taken to right the IT ship show that Fort Worth city government is working, despite all its imperfections and delays. “I believe we have checks and balances here where we can fix things,” the auditor said.

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