Free-Net: Council Keeps It Local
Delayed vote finds local provider besting out-of-town option
Amid public backlash, and against the recommendation of city staff, City Council voted 8-2 last week to continue digital literacy provider Austin Free-Net's contract, instead of using California-based nonprofit Community Technology Network. The three-year contract for community technology lab management services is aimed at bridging the digital divide by helping low-income and underserved residents gain tech skills.
Though it was on the agenda for Feb. 15, Leslie Pool managed to punt the vote to March 1, citing transparency issues over the bid process, and the questionable choice to favor an out-of-state group over a longtime local ("Austin Free-Net to Be Replaced?," March 2). While CTN only established its presence in Austin last year, Free-Net has been in the community for two decades. Tellingly, Ora Houston, Pio Renteria, and Ann Kitchen all spoke of the organization's roots in the community before casting votes in support. The debate underscored Council's ongoing struggle with awarding contracts to local providers instead of out-of-towners, as well as transparency issues with the general contract purchasing process, an issue Pool has been particularly critical of lately. (Last week she sounded off on the lack of transparency over Amazon's bid to locate its second headquarters in Austin.)
The San Francisco-based CTN had scored higher on a matrix that accounted for cost, local business presence, and prior experience; however, Free-Net representatives said the analysis was flawed. Executive Director Juanita Budd pointed to the 200 refurbished computers Free-Net must maintain as an added cost; CTN would have been given those computers by the city. "We were never [previously] offered that opportunity," she told Council. "So that was a cost we incurred in the proposal. I think that's rather unfair of the staff."
A vote for Free-Net would also support diversity, speakers said, as the group is comprised of minority staff and leadership. Houston asked CTN's Dale Thompson about the Austin office's demographics, and she responded that "So far, we're a bunch of white ladies, sorry." She added that the organization employed one person of color and has plans to hire more.
Ellen Troxclair and Jimmy Flannigan cast the two against votes; Alison Alter abstained. "As awesome as the work from Free-Net has been over the years and setting a national model, it doesn't mean you automatically get the next contract," said Flannigan. "Working harder and working smarter is a consequence of competitive bidding."