Stew Lilker’s

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NFBA future in limbo - Fed keeps funds locked down - Suspend project

North Central Florida's Broad Band Authority begins its last meeting with the Feds listening in. Two and a half hours later they hung up the phone. The news was not to be good.

The September 21, 2011 North Florida Broadband Authority special meeting opened with Chairman Stephen Fulford from Jefferson County telling the Board, "It is with much regret that I had to call this meeting today." Chairman Fulford explained that representatives from the federal government were listening via a conference call. They would not be participating. Chairman Fulford explained that half way through the last meeting (Sept. 14th) he received a text message from the NTIA requesting that he join them on a conference call at 4:30. "At that time they told me that the funds would not be released, at least until October 2nd."

Gavel to gavel audio (17.6mg) is available. Click the speaker and chose download files.

Chairman Fulford said there are some particulars of that conversation on Sept. 14th that he was not prepared to act on. He kept those a secret. He told the Board that it was his intention to request that they not take any official action except to approve an extension of the NFBA's line of credit.

Chairman Fulford continued:

I believe that this Board has been put in a very difficult position. This Board was created to be a government service provider. But we are now being put in a position to execute purposes of government at the highest level. That is to punish wrongdoing and protect innocence. Unfortunately, I don't feel that we have enough information yet to make those decisions. The people that we have trusted, we are being told that we can't trust. The people that are telling me that we can't trust them... it has been proven to me, they have misrepresented facts to me. I have been put in the position where people have misrepresented facts to me on one hand -- I'm in a situation where now -- I don't have anybody to trust... I don't know who's telling the truth and that is happening from the highest levels.

Rapid Systems' Dustin Jurman, CEO, Denise Hamilton, CFO and Chris Voehl, Lean Six Sigma. Rapid Systems is owed $500,000+. Rapid kept working out of pocket when the Board voted not to pay any vendors.

Chairman Fulford then asked Rapid Systems, the company that designs, builds and operates wireless broadband systems and the soon to be ex General Contractor for the project, some questions.

A short time later Chairman Fulford said, "There are a lot of people that I want to ask direct questions of today. I am not trying to take any sides on anybody."

Questions of conflict between NGN/GSG/Capitol Solutions
No questions from the Chairman

The Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA) had been dealing with questions of conflict between NGN/GSG/CST. (NGN: Nabors, Giblin, Nickerson; GSG:  Government Services Group; CST: Capitol Solutions, Tallahassee). On May 31, 2011, Hardee County Economic Development Director, Bill Lambert, in an e mail to NGN's Crystie Carey, FREDHI's Gina Reynolds, Rapid Systems, and the NFEDP's and FSU's Institute of Government, Jeff Hendry, among others said in part:

We must make some dynamic changes in the management structure of FRBA. I am extremely uncomfortable with the grants manager also being the project manager. Further, I have no problem with NGN representing FRBA on grant compliance issues but it becomes somewhat difficult or in conflict when the role of grant compliance and project manager are performed by the same entity. I believe there is an unfortunate and unintended conflict of interest that has resulted with this situation. As such I am requesting the role of grant compliance and the role of project manager, currently held by GSG to be segregated by the termination of one or the other of these employment situations. I do not think NGN can effectively represent FRBA without this separation.

On June 2, 2011, after some apparent disagreement, Bill Lambert wrote the following:

Well we are just going to have to disagree on this one.
There really is no independent oversight that is not affiliated one way or the other with GSG/NGN/Capital Solutions. I am comfortable with GSG doing grant compliance. If I felt like they had a reasonable resume regarding Broadband I would feel comfortable with them executing the project as manager but would still expect a separation from compliance. Further, this situation is unique because the grants compliance entity is the “sole” interpreter of the rules the project manager operates under with no previously set standards to follow. Additionally, when the legal counsel crawls out of the same fox hole (I do believe Christie is doing the best she can under the circumstances) we end up looking like buffoons if ever placed under scrutiny.
Not good. Not good.

After your reporter read the above text of the June 2nd email to the NFBA, Lake City's City Manager and NFBA/Operations Committee member, Wendell Johnson said in part:

If there was going to be any conflict the attorneys for not only FRBA, the NFBA, [and the] NTIA attorneys, they should have identified those ~unintelligible~ then, not a year and a half down the road... I think there is independent oversight and has been from the beginning and continues to today.

Bradford County's NFBA board member, Chris Thurow added:

I would like to add a rebuttal to Mr. Johnson's statement. Each one of those people who commented in the e-mail chain eventually voted to terminate the contract with GSG [the Project Manager].

The meeting went on for another hour and forty minutes.

Mr. Hendry's expense detail
Mr. Hendry's quarterly report

Jeff Hendry, the NFEDP's (North Florida Economic Development Partnership) Executive Director, who is being funded to the tune of $9,000 federal taxpayer dollars a month, spoke about the project, the Board and his integrity.

The Rapid Systems Acceleration Plan

The Acceleration Plan produced by Rapid Systems was discussed.

Chairman Fulford said it was the first time he'd seen the plan.

Rapid Systems' Chris Voehl told the Board, "This was something that was done initially in collaboration with GSG, with Robert Sheets in our office in Tampa... We received updates from the General Manager with suggestions on how we could modify the presentation... We made all the requested modifications. We sent it back to the General Manager's office. The information was never presented to the Board."

The Acceleration Plan development occurred in Rapid Systems offices in Tampa on or about May 19, 2011.

Mr. Voehl, a Master Black Belt - Lean Six Sigma, told the Board that after two months of inaction, a determination was made to contact the Chairman of the NFBA to review the particular details of the plan. Mr. Voehl said that GSG's Al Samball emailed Rapid on July 19, 2011 and said that the Chairman would not be returning our call.

Mr. Voehl said that if the NFBA would have followed Rapid Systems' plan, "We may have averted this mess with the NTIA [the Feds] to begin with."

Mr. Samball disagreed with Mr. Voehl's characterization of events.

Mr. Samball said that he had never spoken with Mr. Voehl about the Acceleration Plan -- "Absolutely not, never happened."

Mr. Samball read the email referred to by Mr. Voehl. Confirmed via hard copy, the e-mail did not mention the Acceleration Plan.

Bradford County's representative and past Operations Committee Chairman, Chris Thurow added: "I was in Tampa. I met with Dustin [CEO Dustin Jurman – Rapid Systems] for lunch the day Mr. Sheets was in town... These were ongoing documents... The ~unintelligible~ that this [the Acceleration Plan] was to be presented to the Board... Crystie [NFBA Attorney Crystie Carey] got the resolution in place -- six months worth of work. Robert [Sheets] pulled it from the agenda. It was never brought before this Board ever again, until there was a work authorization for Jacobs [Engineering] for 65,000 more taxpayer dollars to review what they did... Those are the facts, because I ran the Operations Committee."

GSG's Robert Sheets weighed in. "I think everybody's recollection of the facts will differ," he said. Mr. Sheets' complete remarks regarding the Acceleration Plan can be heard by clicking the speaker.

In his discussion (at about 3min 05sec) Mr. Sheets repeated an earlier assertion that Rapid Systems' documents did not meet industry standards.

On September 13, Jacobs Engineering met with Rapid Systems in Rapid's offices in Tampa. Rapid and Jacobs poured through tons of documents. By the end of that meeting it was reported to the Observer that Jacobs assumptions were based solely on information supplied by GSG.

On September 14th, Jacobs Engineering via memo to the NFBA told GSG that they were going over all the deficiencies that they [Jacobs] originally claimed existed.

In a power point presentation presented to the NFBA on the 14th, Jacobs removed all the slides which stated the purported Rapid System deficiencies.

They are due to give a report to the Operations Committee. Jacobs's memorandum is here.

The meeting went on and on

Pat Lien of GSG weighed in and told the gathering that Rapid Systems' plan was not a real plan.

Cedar Key's Pat O'Neil, the present Chairman of the Operations Committee said that he never saw the plan.

White Springs' Walter McKenzie criticized Mr. Thurow for not keeping the Board in the loop. He said he is "pretty good at reading between the lines."

Chairman Fulford explained that he is in communication with the Feds and that he expects it will take a bit of time for the money to be turned back on.

The Board's attorney, Heather Encinosa of NGN told the Board that she heard their frustration and suggested that Chairman Fulford go to Washington to meet with the NTIA.

Sherry Millington of Suwannee County recommended notifying the vendors of the status of the NFBA. She said, "We owe them something in writing."

GSG's Pat Lien said some vendors are getting ready to sue for their money and the NFBA is losing the confidence of some of them.

If the Feds pull the plug, who pays?

Baker County's Darryl Register asked who is responsible for paying the vendors if the Feds completely shut down the funds or if the board chooses not to follow the directives of the Feds with a resulting permanent shut down of the project? "Where do we stand as counties and cities as the members that make up this entity?"

Board Attorney Heather Encinosa opined, "Under established state law... and the interlocal agreement that created the NFBA, there should not be any debts, liabilities, obligations that would flow down to the counties or cities."

Lake City Manager, Wendell Johnson was not swayed by Ms. Encinosa's response and voiced some reservations.

Ms. Encinosa continued, "The NFBA itself is a separate legal entity. That is through the grant agreement. It is not with your counties and your cities."

City Manager Johnson, barely audible, continued:  Over the years that I've been in government I've seen the federal government work in strange ways and I believe they're working in strange ways now.

Walter McKenzie said that nobody should speak to anybody unless they were talking to the Chairman of the Board.

Still, no direct questions

Chairman Fulford still did not ask any direct questions. The nature of his discussion a week earlier when he walked out of the meeting telling the Feds, "I don't know where to begin -- I don't know what the allegations are," is still unknown.

Epilogue – The Ominous Beep

After 2hr, 24min and 25sec the Feds hung up. The hang up beep came through loud and clear around the room. The Board was so wrapped up in its territorial self interest and blind support for GSG/NGN/CST nobody seemed to remember the Feds were listening in. A few minutes later the meeting, which may have brought good news to the 15 counties and 8 cities represented by the NFBA and its loyal vendors, the folks that are building the system, mercifully came to an end. The funds were still frozen.

Two hours later the Federal Government sent a letter (emphasis added) to the North Florida Broadband Authority Chairman, Stephen Fulford. The news – effective immediately the NFBA project was suspended and all work was to cease and the job sites were to be secured until further notice.

The Board would do well to look inside themselves and heed the words of Krystal Strickland, one of the finance people for GSG as she stood in the parking lot, a tear on her cheek, at the conclusion of the August 10th emergency meeting as she told the Observer, "I hope they don't lose the project. The people in this region need it so badly."

Take heed NFBA. If the Federal Government fails to turn the spigot back on, you will have no one to blame but yourselves.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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