SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Staring down the barrel of a legislative audit, California’s judicial administrators are scrambling to hire 18 technical workers at a rough cost of $3 million to manage a controversial and expensive IT project, prompting a letter this week from trial judges to California’s new chief justice blasting the move as “reckless” and one that “will cause further embarrassment and irreparable damage.”
Just four weeks before a report by the state’s chief auditor scheduled for Feb. 8th, court administrators issued two requests for proposals, one seeking to hire 18 new technical workers to maintain a massive computer system, and another looking for document scanning software that could give local courts the ability to sell documents online.
Over the past year, the Administrative Office of the Courts has faced virulent criticism over the estimated $1.3 billion cost of a project to connect all of California’s trial courts through the Court Case Management System. The most recent hiring proposal is being justified as a “cost saving” measure.
But neither the proposal nor its logic sits well with many of the state’s trial judges.
“It is clear that the Bureau of State Audits will be releasing its report on CCMS in early February. If these actions pertain to that report, then the bottomless pit that is CCMS is even deeper than any of us could envision,” said Judge Maryanne Gilliard of Sacramento Superior Court.
“How spending up to $3.65 million per year saves money is a concept the public will have a difficult time understanding,” said Gilliard in an interview. “At a time when courts are closing early to the public, important and vital court services are curtailed and court workers are being laid off, the fact that the San Francisco bureaucracy continues to hire unabated is appalling.”
The first of the two requests for proposals is dated Jan. 11, announcing an effort by court administrators to take control over maintenance of V-3, an interim version of the new case management system that has been in the hands of Deloitte Consulting.
However the plan is not to hire directly but to use a vendor to hire 18 contract employees with software programming experience at a cost as high as $232,000 per year for some of the jobs to help on systems in San Diego, Orange, Ventura, San Joaquin and Sacramento. Los Angeles uses the system in only one small claims court.
That plan doubles the number of new staff bringing the total to 18 tech workers up from the nine tech workers included in a December request for proposals that was subsequently cancelled.
The hiring of a group of high-priced contract employees comes against the backdrop of a state facing a $28-billion budget shortfall where local courts have been furloughing court staff and closing on some days to save money. The San Francisco courts began closing for a half-day on Fridays earlier this month.
In the meantime, the administrators transferred $142 million from trial court funds in December largely to support the big computer project and a subcommittee headed by the chief justice voted to recommend that administrators receive a 3.5% raise which was scheduled to go into effect this month.
In a letter sent to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Monday, a group of trial judges, called the Alliance of California Judges, attacked the court’s administrators for their spending ways.
“Inexplicably the AOC, seemingly unrestrained by any economic reality finds it appropriate to expand its bureaucracy despite the real concern of layoffs of necessary staff to courtroom operations,” said the letter penned by San Diego Superior Court Judge Daniel Goldstein writing for the Alliance of California Judges.
“The continued reckless spending decisions of the AOC during the State’s current budget crisis will inevitably cause this branch further embarrassment and irreparable damage,” said Goldstein’s letter.
A spokesman for the AOC, Philip Carrizosa, defended the hiring proposal, saying, “The opportunity exists to reduce the cost of maintenance and support for the V-3 application by transferring support from Deloitte to AOC’s in-house staff.”
“In addition to cost savings,” he added, “transferring V-3 oversight and support to the AOC also provides the foundation of an in-house team to support the final version of CCMS.”
But the cost of the proposal has raised questions from those in the industry as well as trial judges.
One industry-insider called the estimated annual cost for the new staff “massively over bloated.” Jon Hines of LR Hines Consulting said, “Even for the experience they’re requiring them to have, especially in this economy, you could get people for $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”
Hines and others also said the tight deadlines set by the AOC for vendors wanting to bid on the contract were concerning.
“What makes me raise an eyebrow is the short amount of time they put on it,” said Hines. “Your average bid is usually two months, six weeks at minimum. Usually there’s a pre-proposal conference so you can look at the site and get your questions together.”
The text of the official request specifically states that no pre-proposal conference would take place, and the deadline for vendor questions was Jan. 14, only three days after the request was issued. Bidders had only five additional days to submit proposals and the AOC plans to choose among the proposals by Feb. 18.
The strict schedule led Hines to wonder whether the request was proprietary, considering most vendors would not have had time to view the software and prepare questions. “I don’t see how it can’t be. My guess is it has to be tailored toward a specific vendor and particularly the vendor who wrote the software.”
The vendor that wrote the software is Deloitte Consulting.
The second part of the recent spending proposals both of which can be interpreted as efforts to forestall possible criticism in the upcoming state audit calls for a software system that allows documents to be scanned and posted online. A spokesman for the AOC said the question of whether local courts can sell the documents is still under discussion.
However, Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties already sell documents online, providing hefty incomes.
Officials at the trial court level, including those in Los Angeles, have complained of the effort by the state administrative office to “impose” the fancy new system on local courts.
An administrator in Sacramento’s trial courts estimates that it now takes 30 minutes to enter a new case using the CCMS system. That contrasts with 2-3 minutes under the older and simpler Fast-Track docket system.
That nearly ten-fold increase in the time it takes to docket a new case has caused some courts to resist the new computer system. But the carrot of being able to make money by publishing and selling documents online could help the effort to convince local courts to adopt the new system.
Vendor proposals for the document scanning project are due in early February and a pre-proposal teleconference took place earlier week hosted by Santa Clara Superior Court, in which 68 vendors participated, including Hewlett-Packard, Hyland Software, EMC Software, and Unisys Corporation.
The pilot document scanning program is expected to start with Santa Clara Superior Court in September.