WINCHESTER — Members of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors clashed Wednesday night over whether to enter into a contract with Texas-based EF Johnson to replace the county’s public safety radio system — a move that is expected to cost roughly $21 million.
At Wednesday night’s board meeting, Opequon Supervisor Bob Wells suggested adding to the agenda a vote on executing a contract with EF Johnson and Pennsylvania-based Mission Critical Partners for the procurement of a public safety radio system and related services. Though the matter was added to the agenda, Gainesboro Supervisor J. Douglas McCarthy, Red Bud District Supervisor Blaine Dunn and Back Creek Supervisor Shawn Graber were upset that they were being asked to possibly vote on an expensive project without having time to examine what they were voting on.
In October 2018, Mission Critical Partners did an assessment of the county’s public safety radio system, which identified numerous problems. For one, the existing system capacity is limited as no frequencies are transmitted countywide, and there are a limited number of operational channels in the event primary dispatch channels get overloaded.
Four potential vendors responded to a request for proposals from the county for a new system.
In November, it was recommended that the board select EF Johnson. The recommendation came from an internal working group known as the Communications Committee made up of users of the system (e.g. Public Safety Communications/9-1-1, the Sheriff’s Office, the Fire & Rescue Department, and Volunteer Fire & Rescue). Mission Critical Partners helped develop the RFP and facilitated the RFP evaluation and vendor negotiations.
But the supervisors postponed making a decision in order to further vet EF Johnson's proposal. At the request of McCarthy, Dunn and Graber, the supervisors further delayed voting in December to examine issues that were brought to their attention in a closed session and to further negotiate with two possible vendors — EF Johnson and Motorola.
On Wednesday, a closed session had been planned for 4 p.m. in the County Administration Building at 107 N. Kent St. to discuss the new radio system.
Closed sessions are government meetings closed to members of the public. According to the board's agenda packet, Wednesday's scheduled closed session was for consultation with legal counsel and a briefing by staff members pertaining to probable litigation by the E. F. Johnson Company and one or more other persons, relating to a contract for and a public safety radio systems. The closed session was also to consult with legal counsel about the contract for the public safety radio system. The session was to be closed because "such consultation or briefing in open meeting would adversely affect the negotiating or litigating posture of the public body."
McCarthy told The Star that every supervisor showed up and when the motion was made to go into closed session, Wells, Chairman Charles DeHaven Jr., Stonewall Supervisor Judith McCann-Slaughter and Shawnee Supervisor David Stegmaier voted not to go into closed session. McCarthy, Dunn and Graber alleged at Wednesday night’s board meeting that some of the supervisors may have been deterred from the closed session due to fear of litigation from EF Johnson.
“EF Johnson had sent a letter to the county,” Dunn said. “The letter basically said that the [Frederick County] communications committee made a recommendation to us and we the board should just sign off and approve that recommendation and if they did not, they would threaten a lawsuit.”
McCarthy and Graber said that because the closed session was canceled that they believed the constituents they represent had been boxed out and had their voices silenced.
“In the three and half years I’ve served on the board, not once have I voted against allowing any member of our board to discuss a concern that they had,” McCarthy said. “Not once have I ever intentionally missed a meeting. Even when I had made up my mind on some things, I still came and I sat and I listened to what you all had to say. And I’m disappointed. It seems to me this country has come to a point where people make up their minds, they don’t care what anyone has to say. They don’t want to hear the other side.”
Graber said he didn’t appreciate “being bullied and intimidated to sign a contract.”
“It is wrong and if this was in my personal house, I would tell them to get off the property and never come back,” Graber said. “Yet we are talking about today giving a contract to that very company. It baffles my mind.”
McCarthy said the policy of the board is that if something is to go on this agenda, that it be submitted a week prior so that board members can consider the matter before they arrive at the meeting — not have 10-15 minutes to think it through. He said the proposed contract with EF Johnson would cost an initial $21 million for installation of the radio system and about $9 million more to continue to maintain it. He said to add a $30 million project to the agenda at the last minute is inappropriate. Dunn said being asked to vote on the matter without notice was “fundamentally wrong.”
Dunn said he would like the board to have also considered a third vendor, L3Harris. He said if more vendors were considered, the contract would be more competitive and the county would likely end up spending $15-$16 million instead of $21 million. He also had questions about site selection, cost savings and the efficiency of the proposed radio system.
Graber said that the liaison representing Mission Critical Partners to the board often failed to answer direct questions and that he often received information that was incomplete, inconsistent or inaccurate. Graber also had concerns about the radio system not being tested locally and it possibly being vulnerable to hacks and security breaches.
McCann-Slaughter and Bob Wells said Wednesday that they were confident in EF Johnson, since they had for the past two years attended meetings held by the county’s communications committee — which is made up of public safety officials who regularly deal with the radio system — and Mission Critical Partners to select a contractor for the new radio system. They felt that EF Johnson had been vetted and that their questions had been answered.
McCarthy and Graber said they wanted to attend the communications committee meetings, but were told by DeHaven not to go. McCarthy said, “DeHaven said we’ll let the committee handle it and you can ask questions when they come back with a report.” He said if they had been allowed to participate in the communications committee, their questions might have been answered. He said the closed session that was canceled would have been an opportunity to alleviate concerns and accused DeHaven, McCann-Slaughter, Wells and Stegmaier of backing down due to a threatening letter from EF Johnson.
“We were on track to have a discussion,” McCarthy said. “At least, that’s the way it appeared on the agenda. Now suddenly that a threat has come across, we are going to say ‘oh, you are going to sue us? Well, welcome aboard, you are our new partner in this.’”
DeHaven said he was unaware that Wells and McCann-Slaughter had attended the communications committee meetings. Wells said he and McCann-Slaughter were invited to attend because they are part of the public safety committee meeting. Graber said he regretted complying with DeHaven and not fighting to attend the committee meetings.
“I will never do that again,” Graber said. “To the residents of Back Creek, I apologize. I gave the chairman of this board the benefit of the doubt and I should not have done so.”
McCann-Slaughter said the board needed to approve a new radio system as soon as possible, saying, “I just don’t know how much longer we put this off and jeopardize the safety of our public safety people on a daily basis.”
She also said the Communications Committee had worked hard for two years.
“I just don’t know how much more we ask of someone,” McCann-Slaughter said. “They have done the job we asked them to do. They have spent multiple months and time to get us to a point of a recommendation to get us 95% coverage. We have law enforcement people out and EMS people who have no coverage. And we continue to push this can down the road.”
Dunn said he understood McCann-Slaughter’s concerns and said if the board agrees to meet again to discuss the matter, they may be able to enter a contract for a new radio system within two months.