MOORLACH UPDATE — Mahesh Patel — February 13, 2014

There is so much to unpack with the Voice of OC piece below. First, Mahesh Patel was the IT Manager for the Treasurer-Tax Collector when I arrived on March 17, 1995. Mahesh was an outstanding member of my team. Some years later, he was recruited away by Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom, who could offer him a better compensation package because he ran a larger department. At Mahesh’s farewell dinner, thrown by the TTC department, I had the chance to speak and predicted that one day he would become the head of the County’s entre IT activities. This came to pass. I am sorry to see that he is now leaving the County, which is the topic of the piece below. I want to thank Mahesh for his many years of exemplary service to the County. He bravely stepped into a position that had many fires to put out.

Here is the first item I want to unpack, as the piece does not give the whole story and lacks balance in a few areas. While serving as the County’s Treasurer, the Auditor-Controller and I used an abundance of caution and were very diligent in preparing the foundation and skeleton of the property tax management system (PTMS) upgrade. We wanted to avoid being one of the many software nightmare stories that are all too familiar. With everything in place, all that was needed was to write the necessary code. David Sundstrom and my immediate successor recommended Tata Consultancy Services, an internationally recognized firm. After Tata started floundering, I even invited their key representatives into my office and requested an explanation, only to be assured that they would make the administrative internal changes in order for the job to be completed on time. Mahesh also inserted himself into the project, which is difficult territory as Tata was selected by independently elected department heads. All the same, Mahesh made the difficult decision not to renew the contract and to pursue Tata for compensation for the lost time and costs.

Secondly, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department utilizes a Unisys system. It is the only department doing so and requires a number of sole source contracts. Again, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Board of Supervisors to demand that an elected Department Head conform to the platform that the rest of the County is using. Consequently, the Board has voted to approve the Sheriff’s sole source contracts, as there are no other alternatives.

Thirdly, the Orange County Employees Association requested that its IT members not assist in the request for proposal (RFP) process for the opportunity to retain or replace the County’s outside information technology provider. When it came down to selecting between the two highest scoring vendors, these employees came to Board meetings and complained that their input was not requested. This was incredibly disingenuous show as these employees would not have responded if requested to do so. All the same, Mahesh Patel was criticized and had to add an employee proposal to the mix during this critical decision process.

I think that’s enough unpacking, but the job of CEO-IT is not for the faint of heart. It reminds me of something former Supervisor Bill Steiner once said, “CEO stands for career ending opportunity.” With all the fun that comes with living in a fish bowl, dealing with elected offices where asserting control is next to impossible, along with a media outlet that is heavily funded by the Orange County Employees Association (Voice of OC), it can be a stressful and aggravating exercise to serve in a key executive position at the County. Mahesh has served the County faithfully and well during times of great change and turmoil and has helped set us on a path to take advantage of the many technological advances that have come about over recent years. With that, I want to once again thank Mahesh Patel for enduring the drill and I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.

County IT Chief Suddenly Announces His Retirement

By NICK GERDA

Orange County’s technology chief, Mahesh Patel, who presides over a department that has long been plagued with cost overruns and blown deadlines, suddenly announced his retirement earlier this week.

His Monday morning announcement came as a surprise — including to Supervisor John Moorlach, who said he first learned about it when a Voice of OC reporter called Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s coming as news to me,” said Moorlach.

After speaking with Patel, Moorlach added: “It appears that he just wants to take a little detour in life and spend some time with his son before he goes off to college.”

“I think he’s done an admirable job, and I’m sorry to see him go.”

Patel, who usually talks to Voice of OC about technology issues, suddenly shut down this week, not returning phone calls and instead sending a brief email.

“With respect to my retirement, my reasons are purely personal and I believe this is the right time for me to make a change,” Patel wrote.

He plans to step down on March 6.

Chairman Shawn Nelson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Patel has overseen the county’s troubled technology department for two and a half years, taking over after his predecessor retired in the wake of scathing internal audits that pointed to hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more — in wasteful spending.

Patel’s sudden departure from the top tech slot comes as he oversees a massive upgrade of the county’s computer and phone networks.

Xerox was chosen to lead the project last year after hiking its price $11 million beyond its final offer and threatening to stop running existing networks.

The county’s new data center contract was awarded to SAIC, which a year earlier admitted to a massive fraud scheme against New York City on a tech project.

Additionally, the county is working on an unstable platform for its aging property tax system, which county Assessor Webster Guillory has warned could crash.

Development of the replacement system, known as PTMS, has dragged on years beyond its original completion date, and the county is now suing the contractor.

It’s unclear who will replace Patel or whether the county will promote from within or conduct an outside recruitment. Moorlach said he’ll defer to county CEO Mike Giancola on the issue.

“I’m a big Mahesh Patel fan, so I don’t know whether there will be a difficult transition or not,” said Moorlach.

Patel “has strong people underneath him, so I’m not overly concerned. I’m just reeling from the surprise,” he added.

A recent profile of Patel lists his age as 51. Moorlach said employees can qualify for retirement when they’re 50 years old and have 10 years of experience.

As for the cost overruns and delays, Moorlach said Patel has been doing his best.

“I think the first answer would be that some of it [Patel] inherited, so he’s been working through that,” Moorlach said.

In the case of Tata Consultancy Services, which the county is suing for fraudulently running $8 million over its promised budget, Moorlach said county management did their job.

“In that case, I think everyone did what they could do, and we were given assurances by Tata all along the way that everything was being worked on,” said Moorlach.

“When someone commits conduct like that, you just don’t anticipate that. You expect to get services rendered as requested.”

As for the recent Xerox contract, Moorlach said supervisors gave its competitor Verizon “a really hard look” after Xerox threatened to stop providing its existing services.

At the same time, supervisors largely brushed aside efforts by county workers to show that they could handle many of the services in-house for a lower cost than contractors.

The information technology or IT department’s troubles date back more than a decade. An earlier chief technology officer, Reza Khayyami, was charged in 2006 with taking bribes from a software contractor.

Many of the issues were supposed to be fixed by a 2006 task force, the IT Working Group. But that panel waited years to begin reviewing the very problem that prompted its creation — the delivery of a $6-million mainframe system before county supervisors had a chance to approve it.

Then in 2009, a county audit found that $45 million in no-bid technology contracts were awarded over a four-year period.

That type of noncompetitive contracting continued under Patel’s administration, a Voice of OC review found.

Over a three-month period last year, county supervisors approved four separate no-bid contracts as well as nine IT contract extensions and overruns totaling $26 million.

More than half of the extensions and overruns were on no-bid contracts.

It came at the same time as county supervisors publicly expressed frustration over the issue.

“We do get ourselves into these sole-source contracts with these IT firms that we end up being hostage to it,” Supervisor Janet Nguyen said last year. “And we can’t get out of it, because we spend millions and millions and we don’t have a choice.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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