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San Diego website meltdown preceded by vendor spat, email shows

Exiting campaign disclosure provider threatened by City Clerk’s office

Liz Maland, City Clerk
Liz Maland, City Clerk

The intrigue surrounding the City of San Diego's abrupt switch to a new campaign finance disclosure website has deepened with the partial rejection by city officials of a request for public records that might shed further light on the controversial matter.

The bumpy changeover of the site's operator, from the veteran contractor Netfile to a new vendor calling itself Pasadena Consulting, was undertaken two months ago by the city clerk's office without public announcement or official word to the site's operator or official word to the media.

A spokeswoman for the clerk's office who requested anonymity maintained that allegations regarding multiple problems with the site have been overblown.

But when asked in a public records act request to provide documents containing details of the changeover, including emails and memos, the city balked.

"All responsive documents have been released except those that have been withheld pursuant to Attorney-Client Privilege," says a June 4 response by public records official Mailei Oliva.

In a subsequent email, dated June 9, a clerk's office employee who asked not to be named wrote: "The determination of atty-client privilege was not made by the Office of the City Clerk.”

Documents that were released by the city in response to the request include email from Netfile executive Tom Diebert, confirming his previously reported explanation regarding why the firm ended up not bidding on the contract that was ultimately awarded to Pasadena Consulting.

"One-off custom systems such as the lobbyist platform we built for San Diego cannot be shared with other agencies to cover development or maintenance costs,” wrote Diebert in an August 25, 2020, email to the city.

“We discovered that we have invested almost $500k in the current lobbyist platform since 2014 and have recouped less than 20% of that investment since then.”

"As you can see, continuing forward with such a system is bad business (significantly worse than I actually was aware of prior to starting this process).

“As an officer and shareholder of NetFile, I cannot in good faith to our company agree to continue providing the lobbyist system under the current conditions.

"We are amenable to amending the current agreement where you will see considerable cost savings on both the currently supported Campaign and Form 700 systems, but would have to take a considerable increase in price for us to maintain the current lobbyist platform in maintenance mode only (meaning no additional features or forms being added) for the next 12 months.”

But, based on the email provided, the city would not unbundle the lobbying system from other reporting functions.

The email confirms multiple reports by city hall insiders that the changeover to the new vendor went less than smoothly, with key parts of the reporting system unavailable to the public and reporting campaigns.

As issues mounted, the city insisted that Netfile continue to provide its service through the end of April or face legal action.

"We discussed this through negotiations clearly that this contract and services would run through April 30," says a March 12 email from Diana Fuentes, a deputy director in the clerk's office, to Netfile's Diebert.

"Specifically, so that we could complete the Annual SD process through Netfile and not create an impact to our users for this filing obligation.”

"Your threats of pulling the plug the day before the deadline is reminiscent of what occurred last year right before the campaign deadlines. I hope that we will be able to get on the same page just as we did then."

"If you do not comply with the terms of the contract as confirmed by the Office of the City Attorney and continue service until April 30, 2021, we would have no other recourse [than] to proceed with further legal action for breach of contract," Fuentes wrote Diebert on March 15.

"Please confirm that you will be complying with the signed and approved contract and [provide] service through April 30, 2021."

Four hours later, Diebert wrote back: "Hindsight being 20/20, the agreement was not worded very well to start with, but that is water under the bridge.

“If you like, I am happy to have NetFile comp the service to the City for the month of April. We have appreciated your business for all these years and my goal is to leave on a positive note.

“We have made many friends over the years with San Diego. I miss Denise every time I think about San Diego and all the liaison trainings we did early on for several years at the City Clerk's office. I'm a huge fan of [City Clerk] Liz Maland, who has done an outstanding job and is an incredible person. I have enjoyed dealing with you as well Diana and Bonnie before you.”

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Liz Maland, City Clerk
Liz Maland, City Clerk

The intrigue surrounding the City of San Diego's abrupt switch to a new campaign finance disclosure website has deepened with the partial rejection by city officials of a request for public records that might shed further light on the controversial matter.

The bumpy changeover of the site's operator, from the veteran contractor Netfile to a new vendor calling itself Pasadena Consulting, was undertaken two months ago by the city clerk's office without public announcement or official word to the site's operator or official word to the media.

A spokeswoman for the clerk's office who requested anonymity maintained that allegations regarding multiple problems with the site have been overblown.

But when asked in a public records act request to provide documents containing details of the changeover, including emails and memos, the city balked.

"All responsive documents have been released except those that have been withheld pursuant to Attorney-Client Privilege," says a June 4 response by public records official Mailei Oliva.

In a subsequent email, dated June 9, a clerk's office employee who asked not to be named wrote: "The determination of atty-client privilege was not made by the Office of the City Clerk.”

Documents that were released by the city in response to the request include email from Netfile executive Tom Diebert, confirming his previously reported explanation regarding why the firm ended up not bidding on the contract that was ultimately awarded to Pasadena Consulting.

"One-off custom systems such as the lobbyist platform we built for San Diego cannot be shared with other agencies to cover development or maintenance costs,” wrote Diebert in an August 25, 2020, email to the city.

“We discovered that we have invested almost $500k in the current lobbyist platform since 2014 and have recouped less than 20% of that investment since then.”

"As you can see, continuing forward with such a system is bad business (significantly worse than I actually was aware of prior to starting this process).

“As an officer and shareholder of NetFile, I cannot in good faith to our company agree to continue providing the lobbyist system under the current conditions.

"We are amenable to amending the current agreement where you will see considerable cost savings on both the currently supported Campaign and Form 700 systems, but would have to take a considerable increase in price for us to maintain the current lobbyist platform in maintenance mode only (meaning no additional features or forms being added) for the next 12 months.”

But, based on the email provided, the city would not unbundle the lobbying system from other reporting functions.

The email confirms multiple reports by city hall insiders that the changeover to the new vendor went less than smoothly, with key parts of the reporting system unavailable to the public and reporting campaigns.

As issues mounted, the city insisted that Netfile continue to provide its service through the end of April or face legal action.

"We discussed this through negotiations clearly that this contract and services would run through April 30," says a March 12 email from Diana Fuentes, a deputy director in the clerk's office, to Netfile's Diebert.

"Specifically, so that we could complete the Annual SD process through Netfile and not create an impact to our users for this filing obligation.”

"Your threats of pulling the plug the day before the deadline is reminiscent of what occurred last year right before the campaign deadlines. I hope that we will be able to get on the same page just as we did then."

"If you do not comply with the terms of the contract as confirmed by the Office of the City Attorney and continue service until April 30, 2021, we would have no other recourse [than] to proceed with further legal action for breach of contract," Fuentes wrote Diebert on March 15.

"Please confirm that you will be complying with the signed and approved contract and [provide] service through April 30, 2021."

Four hours later, Diebert wrote back: "Hindsight being 20/20, the agreement was not worded very well to start with, but that is water under the bridge.

“If you like, I am happy to have NetFile comp the service to the City for the month of April. We have appreciated your business for all these years and my goal is to leave on a positive note.

“We have made many friends over the years with San Diego. I miss Denise every time I think about San Diego and all the liaison trainings we did early on for several years at the City Clerk's office. I'm a huge fan of [City Clerk] Liz Maland, who has done an outstanding job and is an incredible person. I have enjoyed dealing with you as well Diana and Bonnie before you.”

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