Council: Free-Net Ain’t Free

Austin Free-Net wins a reprieve over California competition

Entering spring festival season, City Council stays local on digital outreach, expands paid sick leave to all city workers, moves to add a franchise for “non-emergency” health care transportation … and buys more fluoride.

Among those testifying in support of Austin Free-Net: Wilhelmina Delco (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last Thursday’s City Council meeting adjourned in the afternoon – prior to music and proclamations – when Mayor Steve Adler remarked that the loyal musical “die-hards and groupies” remained to hear songbird Lesly Reynaga. With an agenda topping out at 44 Items and no late public hearings, the truncated day was anticipated, even including an extended executive session covering annual personnel review for the Council’s direct reports: City Clerk, Auditor, and Municipal Court Clerk (City Manager Spencer Cronk, now enthroned on the dais, was handled previously.)

The most embattled Item of the day (15) was whether to stick with longtime vendor Austin Free-Net to continue providing “community technology access lab management services,” or to shift the next three-year-plus-extensions, $860,000 contract to newcomer Community Technology Network. Staff had recommended CTN, on the basis of a competitive matrix score that graded higher on CTN’s service potential, even with the additional points given Free-Net for its local roots. (“Is the City Dumping Longtime Tech Nonprofit Austin Free-Net for a Cali Company?” ) The contract had actually expired Feb. 28, but Council had postponed consideration Feb. 15 (on a motion by Council Member Leslie Pool) to give themselves more time to review the file (and presumably ponder the political risk).

Both companies are nonprofits dedicated to expanding computer literacy to underserved communities, and the dais argument (then and now) waxed and waned over the merits of the matrix, the value of Free-Net’s lengthy working relationship with the city, and the opportunity presented by CTN, whose potential resources and extensive San Francisco/Bay Area résumé carried weight on the matrix. Although CTN is based in California, co-founder and Executive Director Kami Griffiths recently moved to Austin and is looking to expand the group’s fledgling operational toehold here.

Griffiths told Council: “Our proposal was selected because it provided the best solution for the best price.”

Council generally prefers to default to staff recommendations on contracting decisions – that’s staff’s bailiwick and they sweat the relevant details – but testimony from Free-Net Executive Directory Juanita Budd, board member Elizabeth Quintanilla, and (at the previous meeting) political heavyweight (and Free-Net board member) Wilhelmina Delco was in the end too imposing for CTN to overcome.

CM Ellen Troxclair defended the staff choice, and CM Jimmy Flannigan made his recurrent argument that intervening, “ad hoc,” in selected contracts – “based on who is the most politically connected” – is just bad practice. They provided the only nay votes (CM Alison Alter abstained), although the decision came with the proviso that staff will closely monitor Free-Net’s performance and return to Council for review before granting any extensions.

In other decisions:

In Sickness and Health: As anticipated, Council extended paid sick leave to those part-time and temporary workers not yet covered, a followup action to its previous mandate for private employers. Criticized on the potential cost and the timing, lead sponsor CM Greg Casar said the alternative is to unfairly impose the cost on individual employees and the community, adding, “I think we're acting too late. I think our staff should have all had sick time long before anybody on this dais was elected.”

It was no surprise that budget-hawk Troxclair voted no, perhaps a slight one that the other nay was by CM Ora Houston – who had also voted against the private-employee ordinance. “I know this is going to be awful,” Houston said, “but I’m not going to be able to support this … there are too many unknowns.”

Carry Me Home: Council approved, on first reading, the addition of a third franchise (Allegiance Mobile Health) for non-emergency medical transfers (e.g., from hospital to nursing home, etc., just under 20,000 trips a year). The existing two franchises (Acadian Ambulance Service and American Medical Response) made it clear they are not happy at the competition – echoes of the perennial taxi wars – but the vote to approve (first reading) was 10-0 (Troxclair off the dais).

More Loaves, More Fishes: With little consternation, Council waived $414,000 in utility hookup fees for the next construction phase of Mobile Loaves and Fishes “Community First” village for the once-homeless in East Austin; approved a five-year contract to purchase $1 million worth of fluorosilic acid for water fluoridation (with nary a peep from the perennial opponents), and waived the 300-foot limit on alcohol sales near a school (Texas School for the Deaf, which didn’t object) for the South 1st Tasty Spoon.

Is there nobody left to think of the children?

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City Council 2018, Austin Free-Net, paid sick leave, Wilhelmina Delco

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