After weeks of deliberations, Pittsburgh City Council members voted on Tuesday to fund a $572,640 maintenance and upgrade contract with an IT contractor embroiled in controversy. But in the same meeting, two council members introduced legislation that they hope will provide necessary oversight of the way the city does business with private companies.
Plum-based contractor B-Three Solutions has provided multiple city departments with software. Most notably, police officers use B-Three systems on a daily basis to file reports and track crime.
A Feb. 14 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a current officer alleged that the city repeatedly paid B-Three for projects the company never finished. Police Chief Scott Schubert last week confirmed that three B-Three projects the city fully paid for years ago were never implemented. Mayor Bill Peduto on Tuesday said it’s “not a unique situation” to have software the city bought but does not use and that many of these problems are due to employees without IT experience making decisions on software.
B-Three said Tuesday that it plans to sue the officer who filed the lawsuit against the city.
Several council members expressed concerns about funding more work from B-Three but ultimately felt like they had to vote for the bill because critical public safety functions could falter if they didn’t. Schubert made the rounds to council members in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s unanimous vote to ease their concerns.
As a response to the situation, council members Theresa Kail-Smith and Corey O’Connor introduced legislation that is intended to provide further oversight of the way the city does business with private companies like B-Three. They proposed to establish a special committee of council members, experts and a budget official to review the way the city enters into contracts.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure we don’t go down this road again because this is not the first time this has happened in the City of Pittsburgh where contracts have been a concern or issue or have received a lot of media attention for various reasons,” Kail-Smith said after she introduced the bill.
In February, PublicSource broke the news of past FBI and internal investigations regarding the city and B-Three. B-Three Solutions is a private Plum-based software firm that has done business with the city since 2006; the city has paid the company more than $4 million since 2010.
Few details are available about how much power the new contract review committee would have, but Kail-Smith and O’Connor both said they hope it would function as a way to catch problems before they arise and, in B-Three’s case, prevent the city from hiring companies that could end up having a “monopoly” over the work they do. As O’Connor described it, that’s what happened with B-Three — the city hired them to build custom software for the police that now no other company can fix or upgrade.
It starts with how the requests for proposals [RFPs] are structured, he said.
“We don’t want to write the RFPs and we don’t want to pick who wins the RFP — that’s not our job — we want to be transparent,” O’Connor said. But, “if there’s a software RFP, let’s make sure we’re not putting a monopoly on our system where only one company can get that job.”
The committee, as proposed, would consist of four members: one person from the council budget office and three other spots filled by a mix of council members, city officials or experts. The committee would review all of the city’s RFPs over a certain dollar amount that has not been set yet. The committee would also be charged with writing a report with recommendations on how it can best review RFPs, how it will comply with existing laws, how it will operate transparently and any code changes the committee feels is necessary.
Given the way B-Three Solutions’ deal with the city has been structured, it’s unlikely the committee would have been able to prevent the concerns of council members and other city officials. While some of B-Three’s work with the city has gone through the formal RFP process — in which the city publishes a proposal, multiple companies bid on it and the city chooses the best offer — much of B-Three’s work has been done via the state’s cooperative purchasing program, COSTARS. That means B-Three has had an open-ended, multi-year contract that has allowed it to do work for the city outside of the RFP process.
“Council needs to be involved in the process of the RFPs to make sure we’re responsible, doing our jobs, in terms of the funding that’s coming through the city and making sure that the dollars are spent wisely and ethically,” Kail-Smith said. “That is our responsibility here on council, to oversee the dollars. I think that we want to make sure we’re doing that effectively.”
The special committee bill will be up for debate next Wednesday and the funding bill now heads to Mayor Bill Peduto’s desk where he’s expected to sign it. The mayor previously echoed Schubert’s arguments that the funding was necessary to keep the city’s Public Safety department functioning. On Tuesday, he said problems with B-Three occurred because city staff did not have enough technical knowledge.
“A lot of the problems we got into with IT, including with B-Three, is because we had people in positions that were making decisions on information technology without any background in IT,” Peduto said.
Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Kail-Smith said she would not have committed to voting yes had she not met with Schubert and had additional discussions with Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich. Council President Bruce Kraus and O’Connor said they felt similarly to Kail-Smith.
“Had I not heard from the chief — he is the person I trust the most in this whole process — so if it had not been for him and Director Hissrich and my conversations I would not be voting for this today,” Kail-Smith said prior to the vote.
Kraus addressed the council before the vote saying: “I know members struggled with this one. I share a lot of your thoughts.”
Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0069 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely at PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL
PublicSource reporter Jeffrey Benzing contributed to this report.