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Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times // July 29, 2011

Los Angeles County leaders Thursday put the county at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds when they voted to scrap years of planning for a vast emergency communications system and restart the search for companies to build the complex project.

The drastic decision came three years after officials from the county and the many independent cities within its borders launched the massive project, which is expected to cost about $700 million to design and build.

The communication system is intended to allow the scores of police, fire and other emergency-response agencies in the sprawling county to communicate and share data during major incidents such as an earthquake or terrorist attack.

The idea for it was born out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, during which emergency responders in New York City were hamstrung by an inability to communicate easily. If it is built, the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System would be one of the largest and most complex of its kind in the country.

The plan to construct the system had reached its final stage as negotiators spent the last several months in private contract talks with the technology company Raytheon.

In early June, however, county attorneys raised concerns that the nearly completed contract violated state rules on how contracts for publicly funded projects must be structured and awarded, said Patrick Mallon, the project’s executive director. Negotiations with Raytheon were suspended, he said, as the lawyers and project staff examined the issue.

To comply with state codes, Mallon’s staffers said at a meeting Thursday, the project should be divided into three separate contracts — one to design and implement the technological component of the system, a second to design the signal towers and other structures that need to be built, and a third to build the towers and other structures.

Mallon said he could not explain why the code issue did not surface earlier in the three years of planning.

County Chief Executive William T Fujioka, who serves as the chairman of the 17-member board that was formed to oversee the project, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

His spokesperson, Ryan Alsop, did not respond to why the code violation was discovered so late. In a written statement Alsop said, “The requirements and scope of this complex project have been evolving, and have continued to evolve even” after companies began to bid for the job.

Raytheon executives expressed dismay at the decision to terminate the contract talks. “We are very disappointed about this development,” said Michael Bostic, a Raytheon executive. “This delay hurts public safety and the citizens of Los Angeles County.”

A large portion of the funding for the project is expected to come from federal grants that total at least $283 million, said Torrance City Manager LeRoy Jackson, who sits on the oversight board. To receive those funds, however, the project must meet certain deadlines that would have been difficult to meet before Thursday’s decision and, now, are almost certainly impossible.

Jackson and Mallon said high-profile members of the project board such as Sheriff Lee Baca are expected to fly to Washington, D.C., to ask federal officials for extensions on the deadlines. Without the extensions, funding for the system would be thrown into question.

“This puts us in a very challenged position,” Jackson said. “We have to deal with very aggressive timelines.”

The pending deal with Raytheon has been roiled by allegations of impropriety for months.

Motorola Co., which also bid on the project, filed a formal protest over the way in which the two companies’ proposals were evaluated. Company executives again vigorously protested when a member of the county’s negotiation team gave Raytheon staffers classified technical information from Motorola’s proposal. Motorola threatened legal action if the deal with Raytheon went through.

Because the board’s deliberations were made in private, it was not immediately clear how much, if at all, the prospect of a protracted legal battle played into the decision by the project board to walk away from contract talks.

Motorola officials declined to be interviewed, but made clear they plan to compete with Raytheon once again for the project.

“We support the Board’s action today and look forward to responding to their revised solicitation as soon as it is released,” the company said in a prepared statement.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times