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City committee declines to recommend Google e-mail contract

October 20, 2009 |  6:00 am
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Bernard C. Parks.
Credit: David Sarno / Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles City Council's Budget and Finance Committee agreed Monday evening to abstain from voting on a proposed contract with Google Inc. to replace the city's e-mail system, passing the decision on to the full City Council amid unresolved concerns about the cost and necessity of the contract.

The budget committee, chaired by Councilman Bernard C. Parks, adjourned after nearly two hours of testimony in which the merits of upgrading the current system were hotly debated by an array of city officials, as well as Google, Microsoft Corp, Novell Inc. and consumer advocates.

The full council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the contract Oct. 27.

At the heart of the deliberations is whether the city should go to the expense of replacing its longstanding e-mail system -- considered slow and clunky by many employees -- with a system wholly owned and operated by Google.

The Mountain View, Calif., Web giant would use its own far-flung network of computer servers to store and secure e-mail for many of the city's 30,000 employees.  That would likely include city law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, where sensitive data is often exchanged over e-mail.

Though critics of the $7.25-million contract have pointed to security concerns of Google's storing city data in its so-called cloud of servers, the main focus of attention Monday was the extent to which the agreement with Google would deliver budgetary savings to the city.

Indeed, Google's main selling point for its e-mail and document software is that it is a "dramatically lower cost solution," as a Google executive recently described it to The Times.  Officials in the city's Information Technology Agency, which selected Google's bid from among 15 submitted to the city (seven of them were from Microsoft), have also said that the Google system would save the city millions of dollars.

But a recent city analysis found that, instead of offering clear budgetary savings, installing and  running Google Apps would actually exceed the cost of the current Novell system by $1.5 million over the five-year life of the contract. 

"It didn't give me a warm feeling in my stomach that we should jump off this cliff together," Parks said of the disputed savings.  "It looks like we're going on a promise -- and it just doesn't look like, substantively, it's being supported."

Google argues that if the city were to hire the company to handle all of its email, L.A. technology officials could free up many resources now tied to the operation and upkeep of their current system.  Moreover, moving to a next-generation cloud system could offer a variety of other benefits, including the ability to more quickly rebound from a disaster, and stronger security than the city's current offering.

Even so, Parks said with a clear note of skepticism, "the urgency case hasn't been made."

Council members Jose Huizar and Bill Rosendahl agreed to abstain from voting on the contract, saying that more due diligence needed to be performed on the costs and risks involved.

When asked whether he thought the committee's decision to skip voting on the issue was a good or bad sign for the contract, Dave Girouard, the President of Google's Enterprise division, said, "I really don't know -- I've never been in a process like that."

According to the terms of the contract negotiation, the City Council has until Dec. 1 to approve or reject the plan.  If no action is taken by that date, the contract is automatically approved.

-- David Sarno