Chattanooga City Council eyeing Excalibur contract

Chattanooga City Council eyeing Excalibur contract

May 28th, 2013 by Cliff Hightower in Local Regional News

Mark Keil, left, chief information officer for the City of Chattanooga, and Rodger Jenkins, president and CEO of Excalibur Information Systems, are seen in this file photo.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

A local company that has netted more than $6.9 million from the city over the past five years is at risk of losing its contract.

Excalibur Integrated Systems Inc. first came under fire from the Chattanooga City Council two weeks ago during an Economic and Community Development Committee meeting.

Company owner Rodger Dale Jenkins arrived to give a 20-minute presentation on how his company operates its wireless network within the city. The mesh network is a series of high-tech communication systems spread throughout departments. The system includes such things as wireless laptops in police cars and firetrucks, video cameras housed at Coolidge Park and traffic signals across the city.

Instead, the meeting turned into a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Council members wanted to know what city dollars are buying and why his company has an exclusive contract.

"It turned out to be more of an ambush than a presentation," Jenkins said later. "I found it offensive they turned it into an interrogation."

Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke, said the administration is looking further into the contract.

"There's something that's going to have to happen," said Councilman Larry Grohn. "It can't continue to go this way."

Excalibur was chosen by the previous administration to install the wireless network. It is up and running within about a two-mile radius from downtown, and parts are in place on Brainerd Road.

The city pays the company $20,000 a month to help maintain the service. The contract has no end date and no benchmarks for performance.

Many council members aren't happy with the contract.

"I think with any government project there should be deadline and expectations," said Councilman Chris Anderson, chairman of the Economic and Community Development Committee. "And it seems like this company does not have that."

If Jenkins was upset, Anderson said, the council must be asking the right questions.

"He can be offended all he wants, but if he wants to spend $10 million in taxpayer money, he needs to grow a thicker skin," Anderson said.

Excalibur has had issues with the city before. Two years ago, a city audit report showed the city gave Excalibur an $800,000 contract and bought mislabeled items.

Some council members and a local watchdog group questioned the relationship between Excalibur and Dan Johnson, former chief of staff for then-Mayor Ron Littlefield. Jenkins acknowledged at the time that he and Johnson were friends and that Johnson had worked as his accountant for years before joining the city.

The previous council passed on examining the issue further.

During the committee meeting two weeks ago, council members asked Jenkins about the company's responsibility when it came to maintaining the network.

"There's not a lot of issues at all," he said. "There may be one or two issues a week, and most of them are mitigated by hitting the reset button."

Council members bristled at paying $20,000 a month for someone to push a button.

"Can we do it without you?" Councilman Ken Smith asked at one point.

"Some of it," Jenkins responded.

Jenkins provided a 15-page response Friday concerning follow-up questions from the council.

Anderson said he did not expect the council to ask Jenkins back, but he said the contract will be discussed in coming months.

Jenkins said he thinks the council misunderstands the technical aspects of the service he provides, and he would like to educate them further. He said the job is not as simple as it sounds.

"It's just not the push of a button," he said. "It's how to push, when to push and what to push."

He said he's also not worried about the city canceling the contract and trying to handle the responsibilities of the network on its own.

"We'll see when they have to push the button," he said.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.