In these security-heightened days, few members of the public with business at City Hall object to walking through the X-ray machine or putting their bags through an airport-style scanner. City employees and members of the press, on the other hand, just flash their identification badges at the security guards and head on up.
But in 2006, the city paid a security company $66,000 to install optical turnstiles. In theory, employees would swipe their IDs before being allowed to enter the building. For two years, the turnstiles sat inert in the lobby at 202 C St., serving as nothing more than a kind of walk-lane for anyone trying to get to the elevators. Then, late last month, having never once been activated, they were removed.
The security guards who man the X-ray machine had their theories: People were afraid of being tracked; no one was in charge of the system; the system didn't work. Well, thanks to numerous e-mails and documents CityBeat obtained in a public-records request, they can be assured that they turned out to be at least partly right.
The city asked for proposals to improve security at various citywide installations back in late 2004, with formal proposals due in February 2005. The contract was intended to be paid for out of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant called the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI—this is the same funding stream that San Diego almost lost out on in 2006, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff decided the city wasn't in danger of a terrorist attack). The money has to be used within three years of getting it, or it can be lost. But possibly because of the chaos surrounding Mayor Dick Murphy's resignation, the stewardship of Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, and the change to an executive-mayor style of government, the proposals languished.
On June 19, 2006, with the clock ticking on the 2003 UASI funding, the city chose UPS Security Systems, based in Orange, Calif., to do $235,000 worth of security improvements for various city facilities. Part of that, about $66,000, was for the turnstiles. City e-mails describe the rushed process to get UPS paid before the money disappeared. The invoice even has “rush” scrawled at the bottom.
On Nov. 28, 2006, the turnstiles were installed. City Councilmember Donna Frye recalls questioning city staff about them at the time, and then again at a May 9, 2007, budget-review hearing. And she remembers how annoying it was to get new ID cards for all city staff.
“Everybody in the city had to go get new ID cards, and they had to get photographed, which was time-consuming,” Frye said.
Pam Hardy, former spokesperson for City Council President Scott Peters, said she remembers getting a memo about the new system after it was installed. But then, silence.
Reporters attending a press conference in early December questioned Fred Sainz, Mayor Jerry Sanders' press secretary at the time, about whether they would need new ID cards, but he told them not to worry about it. Wise advice, because nothing happened with the turnstiles for the next 14 months. Occasionally, an e-mail from one city staffer or another indicated that no one seemed to know who was in charge of the project, or what was happening. Last winter, responsibility settled on Jill Olen, Sanders' deputy chief operating officer of public safety.
Olen organized staff to start creating a communications plan for educating city workers and asked for a test run of the machines. The first test, in March, had several technical problems, including a broken reader. A second test, in July, went better on the technical front, but Olen was unhappy with how it functioned.
“It had longer wait times than we anticipated,” Olen told CityBeat. “It was slowing down our ingress and egress for employees, and we didn't think that was a necessary level of security.”
So they took it out. Right now, there's just empty space where the turnstiles used to be, and reporters and City Hall employees flash their IDs at the security guards, as they always have.
People who monitor city spending are disappointed with the city's behavior.
“While $66,000 may not sound like a significant amount, right now every penny makes a difference,” said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, referring to the city's current $43-million budget deficit. “That money could have gone toward other important needs within the city.”
Scott Barnett, who runs Taxpayer Advocate, a nonprofit City Hall watching organization, took a similar view. “You have a lot of little $66,000 situations and it starts to add up to real money,” he said. “How many other of these types of things are happening at City Hall?”
When a city has to abandon a project paid for by Homeland Security, it has to submit a letter to the state Department of Homeland Security, which administers the grant for the federal government. The city has not yet submitted its letter, but Elaine Jennings, a spokesperson for the California DHS, said a review like this is routine.“We want to make sure a good-faith effort was made to spend the money properly, that's the most important thing,” she said. “In a worst-case scenario, the money would be given back.”
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