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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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North Florida Broadband Authority: "I don't want to die on principle and not have broadband."

Yesterday afternoon at 3 pm a subcommittee of the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) met to do what many had known for some time was the only solution which would have a chance to save the federally funded North Central Florida rural broadband project. Like passengers on the Titanic, they were on a course with destiny, as they reviewed a response to the Federal Government's questions regarding Government Services Group/Capital Solutions – Tallahassee (GSG/CST). On the line, $40,000,000 and the future.

NFBA member Pat O'Neal asks for thoughts and feelings

More NFBA
stories are here

As the meeting got underway each of the committee members weighed in with their thoughts and feelings regarding the recent events and the future of the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA).

Lake City's City Manager, Wendell Johnson commented: I was dumbfounded. I thought we were doing things appropriately. It would be a travesty if this project did not materialize.

Madison County's Sheryl Rehberg:  I know how important broadband access is to rural communities. I have never had a question about this project that was not answered to my satisfaction. I have never had a doubt that this project was being managed well.

Levy County's Chad Johnson:  It would be a travesty to this area if this project isn't completed. It changes the economic landscape. It gives us a level playing field. It gives us fast reliable Internet service. I don't like stuff being forced down upon me. I am not interested in being told that someone has to fall on the sword for the benefit of this project. I am here to fix it. Let's figure out how to fix it and how to move forward and let's go get what we set out to get done, done.

Gilchrist County's Tommy Langford: We've got to have this. The only way we'll survive in today's world is with Broadband technology. It's got to be. There is no reason for us to be where we are at.

Cedar Key's Pat O'Neal:  I've been with this since the beginning. I want to see it succeed.

Jefferson County's Stephen Fulford, Chairman of the NFBA, thanked the committee members for approving the engagement of the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs. He said they have brought clarity, but, "They're kinda having to operate in the same cloud of doubt that we are because of the allegations that we don't fully know what they are. We have to pursue this as a business decision. What's in the best interest of the NFBA. Everybody is going to have to give up something. We have to calm their [the Feds] fears."

For two hours and twenty eight minutes the committee fine tuned answers to the Federal government questionnaire, answers which are due on Monday and will be submitted to the full Authority Board tomorrow for approval. They then took a break, putting off what they knew they had to do and what they really were there for.


GSG's Al Samball

During the break, in clear violation of the law, GSG's Al Samball went around the room ripping a page out of each of the agenda books. The page had something to do with Jacobs Engineering. He said there was an error.

Perception Issues

When the committee came back there was more discussion. GSG's Robert Sheets was explaining NFBA reorganization options when Chairman Fulford jumped in. He told the committee: They've [Feds] clearly painted a picture for us that we've got perception issues. They may or may not prove to be true, but based on their actions since July they are willing to hold out until we hire a staff and stand up our own operations and administration. They've indicated they are not willing to budge. They have indicated that would solve... the perception of the conflict of interest.

Chairman Fulford explained what the Feds want: At a minimum we need an executive director, project director, CFO, and a clerk.

These are jobs now performed by GSG.

GSG's Sheets:  "This Board's only goal should be to reinstate the project and move forward."

Levy County's Johnson said this is not like a playground scrap, "Somebody's going to have to give." He added, "Although you can tell by my personality I don't know about steppin aside."


Cedar Key's Pat O'Neal. Still looking for a fight.

One still wanted to continue the fight

Cedar Key's Pat O'Neal, "I just want somebody to call the fights on – let's go."

Chad Johnson told Mr. O'Neal, "Choose wisely the hill you want to die on. I don't want to die on principle and not have broadband."

There was discussion about hiring an executive director.

GSG's Pat Lien walked around the room and handed out a resume. He did not want your reporter to have one. There were extras and it was a public document.

When it was suggested that the person named in the resume just be hired right away, Attorney Bill Garner stepped in and told the committee, "The first thing you will have to do is develop your minimum qualifications and get it out for advertising immediately and within two weeks have your responses in."

Jacobs Engineering – the Giant / Rapid Systems – the little company that builds wireless broadband

Jeff Purdy of Jacobs said he does not want to take on the lead financial responsibility.


Jeff Purdy is Jacobs Engineering's lead NFBA man. He recommended leaving Rapid Systems on the job.

Mr. Purdy said he went over the project manager contract of Airwire and then he brought up the relationship with Rapid Systems, telling the committee that missing is Rapid Systems' responsibilities.

Last month, approved by the NFBA Board with only one dissent, Rapid Systems was given a termination notice. Rapid was building the system.

He said, "While organizationally they might report to us for review, approval and quality assurance... I think they have a valuable -- there are valuable services that need to be clarified. They are doing some things that are specific to what they do and if we don't include that I think it would be a considerable mistake."

Chairman Fulford discussed rearranging the contracts. Rapid Systems was previously doing procurement and warehousing the inventory.

Mr. Purdy, "I would not change your form of procurement. I think that would raise -- I would stay the course with what your original -- the way it was originally conditioned. I think it's clean that way... To change it is creating unnecessary work."

If the Feds turn the project funding back on the transition plan is expected to be 30 to 45 days.

The real business could be postponed no longer


Last night, Robert Sheets was making suggestions to the last minute. At an earlier meeting he told the Observer, "I must be doing something right, I have 120,000 customers.

The committee now did the business for which it assembled. The inevitable could be postponed no longer. The word for some time was GSG/CST had to go in order for any chance of funding to be restored.

After some discussion, Tommy Langford made motion to bring on an interim Director for the NFBA. Folks then chimed in about what they thought the rest of the motion should look like. Attorney Garner was almost completely inaudible with his advice. Mr. Langford cleverly added that more details will be available on Friday.

Chad Johnson clarified the motion.

The position would be open to applicants, not the one previously handpicked by someone unknown, but everyone.

Robert Sheets, GSG's owner and one of the prime people responsible for the Broadband Grant, was just let go.

He slumped back in his chair. He knew the fight was over. It was a TKO.

GSG's Pat Lien began to move on, Chairman Fulford cut it short.

"Hold on," he told Mr. Lien. "The other is the perceived conflict of interest with grant compliance [CST]. The recommendation is to replace that piece also. We have other ranked firms that could fill that role."

Sheryl Rehberg: If I heard right, the NTIA has intimated that we should not have GSG or Capitol Solutions for compliance?"

Mr. O'Neal, "Do we need to throw Lisa [Lisa Blair], Capital Solutions under the bus now, or can we wait till Friday?"

The committee moved and approved unanimously to recommend replacing Capital Solutions with another grant compliance firm from their previous list of applicants.

Epilogue

After two months of debate; of vendors not being paid; of a necessary project put on hold, the inevitable came to pass. GSG and Capital Solutions will be gone from the NFBA. Also changing will be the North Florida Economic Development Partnership's role.

The Federal Government is investigating what many consider waste, fraud and abuse by some involved in this project. The financial reporting of the $10,000 flat monthly fee paid to the NFEDP's Jeff Hendry for going to meetings and eating lunch has also been questioned.

Long time Tallahassee Law firm NGN is also under the gun.

Before the close of yesterday's meeting, Levy County's Chad Johnson said, "We are asking individuals, who have no proven evidence that they have done anything fraudulent to step aside and I don't like it."

While the Federal Government continues its investigation, rural North Central Florida may very well join the 21st century with high speed wireless internet access, thanks to the good graces of the American People and the stimulus funds that many complain about.

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

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