Op-Ed

Jim Newton: What we have is a failure to communicate

The Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System is supposed to link all of L.A. County's first responders. But its status is uncertain. Blame sloppiness, recriminations and politics.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, public safety leaders in Southern California concluded that the need for a unified emergency communications system was so grave that they had to build it in such a way as to avoid the traditional pitfalls for huge, multi-agency projects: sloppiness, recriminations and politics. Ten years later, they are on the verge of commissioning such a system, but their efforts are beset by sloppiness, recriminations and politics.

The huge undertaking goes by the ungainly acronym LA-RICS, short for the unwieldy full name: The Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System. Once built, it is supposed to supply a wireless voice and data system that will link all of Los Angeles County's first responders — 50 law enforcement agencies and 31 fire departments.

In theory, a common communications system would not only protect the region in the event of a terrorist attack or major natural disaster but could smooth responses to more routine crises. The LA-RICS website notes that the response to a 2002 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport was hampered by the different communications systems employed by airport police and those used by local and federal agencies with units at or near the airport. LA-RICS could solve that.

But building a system that bridges so many agencies employing so many different technologies has proved to be a significant challenge. To address it, the governments involved formed a joint powers authority and appointed as its leaders police and fire chiefs, city managers and others believed to have the expertise to know what they wanted without distracting political connections. The agency put out a request for proposals in which it described the system it was seeking and the qualifications it was looking for in bidders. Two companies, Raytheon and Motorola, ended up submitting comprehensive proposals; after exhaustive study, the agency's staff recommended entering into negotiations with Raytheon, and the board agreed.

That should have been almost the end of it, but it hasn't been. Stunned not to receive the nod, Motorola is fighting back aggressively, and the agency board is now riven with dissension about how to proceed. Motorola maintains that the process has been flawed; Raytheon complains that it won fair and square. Officials close to the negotiations credit Raytheon with submitting a significantly less expensive alternative, and they complain that Motorola appears to be trying to win through politics what it failed to win with its bid. Motorola counters that the agency staff is biased against it, and it wants dual negotiations that would include itself as well as Raytheon. Close to $1 billion is at stake. The threat of litigation hovers.

Raytheon supporters are agitated by some of Motorola's connections, especially those of one of its prominent representatives. Matt Knabe of Englander, Knabe and Allen is a well-regarded local lobbyist, and he happens to be the son of County Supervisor Don Knabe. Because of the structure of the joint powers authority, the Board of Supervisors has little direct control. But late last month, as Motorola stepped up its criticism of the process, the senior Knabe intervened in one of the few ways possible for a supervisor: He sought to block approval of a contract extension with the management consultant firm, DeltaWrx, that is negotiating with Raytheon. Motorola supporters have accused DeltaWrx of being biased against Motorola, and when an extension of the firm's contract came to the county supervisors for their approval, Knabe pulled it off the calendar, saying the proposal needed more study.

Knabe's spokeswoman, Cheryl Burnett, said the supervisor wanted more time to review the contract renewal; she said he received it on May 23 and was asked to approve it just two days later. "He feels like it's being rushed," she said.

Don Knabe previously has taken action on matters involving his son's clients. He maintains there's no legal or ethical conflict because his son no longer lives at home, and that he has no bias in favor of his son's clients. But Raytheon supporters regard his meddling in the DeltaWrx contract as problematic.

Motorola has its own reasons to complain. It objects to the way the proposals have been graded and questions Raytheon's ability to do the work. Late last month, the lead negotiator of LA-RICS sheepishly acknowledged that the agency mistakenly gave excerpts of the Motorola proposal to Raytheon. Motorola pounced on the mistake and used it to reinforce its insistence that the agency enter into dual negotiations with the two companies rather than focus exclusively on Raytheon.

The board of the joint powers authority was scheduled to conclude its negotiations with Raytheon this month. Amid all the recent controversy, the project's future is suddenly in doubt. So, if the first responders of Los Angeles County are unable to talk to one another during a fire, an earthquake or a terrorist attack, we'll know what to blame: sloppiness, recriminations and politics.

jim.newton@latimes.com

PHOTO GALLERIES