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Critic of faulty 9-1-1 system will sue city because of firing

A Portland official fired after being publicly identified as a critic of the faulty replacement 9-1-1 system plans to sue the city for violating her rights as whistleblower.

'Yes, we are definitely going forward,' says Mitra Shahri, a Portland employment law attorney and founder of the Mitra Law Group who represents Lisa Vasquez, former director of the Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program.

State law protects whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting wrongdoing within public agencies. 'Public bodies cannot retaliate by firing someone who reports mismanagement or other wrongdoing,' says Shahri.

The lawsuit has not been filed. It is expected to be filed in state court.

Vasquez operated the program that was involved in the selection and implementation of the replacement 9-1-1 system, which is operated by the Bureau of Emergency Communications and has been plagued with problems since it was activated on April 17.

Vasquez served under Commissioner Randy Leonard. He fired her on June 27, six days after Portland police union President Daryl Turner named Vasquez as a critic of the system in a three-page letter demanding that it be fixed.

'People are already afraid to talk publicly about the problems with the system,' Turner says. 'What kind of message does that send to them?'

In his letter, Turner said Vasquez questioned whether a single company should be awarded a no-bid contract to evaluate the previous 9-1-1 system, recommend a replacement and install the replacement. The company, ieSolutions of Portland, says it was retained by the city to recommend a replacement strategy for the 9-1-1 system in November 2006, asked to lead the effort to 'envision' a new system one year later, and hired to manage the implementation process in January 2009.

Leonard denies that he fired Vasquez for questioning the management of the replacement system. In fact, Leonard says Vasquez never raised any concerns about it with him, even though they met weekly.

'To the contrary, I want people to talk to me about any problems they see with the system,' says Leonard.

Leonard says he fired Vasquez for a number of other reasons that he cannot discuss on advice of the Portland City Attorney's Office.

Replacing the old system

Vasquez is not the only official whose position has been jeopardized after raising questions about the replacement system, however.

Jim Churchill, a former senior systems business analyst for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications, questioned whether the original system needed to be replaced. He resigned last summer under pressure from BOEC Director Lisa Turley.

Turley declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Churchill's resignation, saying it is a 'personnel matter.' Churchill says he resigned after being accused of tampering with agency equipment without authorization, a charge he calls exaggerated.

The replacement system cost approximately $14.5 million. Contacted by the Portland Tribune earlier this year, Churchill said the previous 9-1-1 dispatch system it could have been updated for a mere $500,000.

'They could have kept using it for years to come for a lot less money,' Churchill said.

Another critic is T.J. Browning, a citizen activist serving on the BOEC User Board, an advisory group representing system users and the public. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of BOEC, challenged Browning's qualifications to serve on the board after she publicly criticized both the operation and cost of the replacement system.

Browning attended her first board meeting last December at Fritz's request. That is when Browning learning that board members were angry the city was unexpectedly going to bill them nearly $1.4 million for additional operating and maintenance costs. Then, after the system was activated, she heard about numerous problems with it from the members. When Browning spoke out publicly about the issues, Fritz said she has never intended to appoint Browning to the board.

BOEC reports receiving 483 complaints about the system since it was activated. In a June 15 report, the agency said 84 percent of them have been fixed.

Turner disagrees. In his June 21 letter, the Portland Police Association president said approximately 1,000 defects have appeared since the system was activated, many of which endanger the lives of police officers and put the public at risk.

Turner says that many of the most serious problems have not yet been fixed, and then some of the solutions have created new problems.

Customized system

The BOEC User Board is scheduled to meet and discuss the status of the replacement system on July 7. Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson leads the board and says he is not satisfied with the progress of the repairs.

Known as a computer-assisted dispatch system, the 9-1-1 network is operated by the BOEC but serves all law enforcement agencies, fire departments and ambulance companies in Multnomah County, including the Port of Portland's police department.

BOEC first began operating a CAD system in 1977 when it was located at Kelly Butte. BOEC switched systems when the dispatch center moved to its current location on East Powell Boulevard. According to veteran BOEC and police employees, that system had similar problems when it was first activated, but was fixed and reprogrammed to meet the specific needs of each jurisdiction. The result was a highly customized that everyone liked.

Worried about the age and complexity of the system, Portland officials began looking for a replacement in 2005. At that time, Leonard was overseeing BOEC.

Mayor Sam Adams transferred BOEC to Fritz after she first joined the Portland City Council in January 2009. By then Versaterm, a Canadian company, had been selected to provide the replacement system.