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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

State Audit Questions No-Bid Contract For Washington State Patrol Radio Upgrade

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
A new performance audit calls into question the Washington State Patrol's decision to enter into a sole-source contract with Motorola for a new two-way radio system and without an engineering report.

When you sink $40 million into a state-of-the art digital two-way radio system, you don’t expect to hear complaints. But delays, dead air and garbled transmissions have bedeviled a new Washington State Patrol radio system.

Now the state auditor’s office is questioning the patrol’s no-bid contract with Motorola to build the system and the lack of an engineering study beforehand.

The troubles arose when the patrol went to something called narrowband. It had to because of a federal requirement to free up space on the radio spectrum. Back in 2012, the patrol decided to piggyback onto an existing federal radio system. Because Motorola was the vendor on that project, the State Patrol signed a no-bid contract with Motorola to do the upgrade and provide the needed equipment.

Chris Cortines is the lead author of a new performance audit that looked at lessons learned.

“The report doesn’t say up or down whether the Patrol made the best choice,” Cortines said. “What the report says is there were some critical inputs that didn’t happen.”

For its part the State Patrol stands by its decision to go with Motorola and a sole-source contract.

Washington State Patrol Chief Technology Officer Tom Wallace said this approach saved the state money during lean times following the Great Recession. And he rejected the idea that the new system has jeopardized the safety of troopers, noting that radio coverage has gotten better in some places, worse in others.

“The priority is making sure that our troopers have the coverage that they need,” Wallace said. “We also have procedures in place for the troopers to use if they’re in an area where there’s insufficient coverage for them to talk on their radio.”

Going forward, the State Patrol has agreed to a set of recommendations from the state auditor’s office. They include working with the governor’s office to establish the minimum acceptable statewide radio coverage.

But that’s enough for a fierce critic of the narrowbanding project.

“It is critical that all state agencies learn from this contracting mistake,” Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle said. He’s still irked that there wasn’t more due diligence.

“It doesn’t mean that there was bad intent, it doesn’t mean that there was categorical incompetence,” Carlyle said. “It just means that you can’t do a sole-source contract without an independent technical review and expect a good outcome.”

The Patrol expects to finish converting all troopers to the new radio system next month -- three years behind schedule.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."