Internal review finds FirstNet followed transparency rules

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A special inquiry into the activities of FirstNet, the Commerce Department entity responsible for building a $7 billion nationwide wireless broadband public safety communications system, found that the group has adhered to open meeting and public records rules.

The probe was launched after Paul Fitzgerald, sheriff of Story County, Iowa and a FirstNet board member, complained that the organization was not being run on a transparent basis. He was concerned about e-mail threads and conference calls among directors that had the characteristics of meetings, but were not announced by public notice, nor included in the public record.

"The [FirstNet] plan was developed largely by consultants who were not engaged in a fair, transparent, objective manner as required by the law, whose qualifications in relation to the public-safety communications have never been disclosed or demonstrated to the board, who have prior relationships with certain members of the board who come from the commercial wireless world, not the public-safety community, and who are paid amounts that have never been disclosed to the board as a whole," Fitzgerald alleged.

Investigators looking into the charges disagreed.

The inquiry, led by former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, found that the emails and conference calls did not rise to the level of meetings because they were informational briefings and didn't involve decision-making. The report acknowledged concerns that the informal communications might serve to establish consensus on certain issues without public discussion, but stated that this did not take place. "Discussions of substantive issues occurred at the open Board meetings, and Board members did not know whether resolutions would and motions would pass or fail or be tabled until the Board meetings themselves," the report states.

The report also addresses the complaint that consultants were hired without their qualifications or compensation being disclosed to the entire FirstNet board. The report found that Fitzgerald didn't make a formal request for these records, and that if some board members had more access it was because they were serving in dual roles of managers and directors. The admission points to some of the problems experienced by FirstNet in staffing the new organization. Since then FirstNet, "Has taken steps to ensure that Board and management responsibilities are not conflated in the future."

Fitzgerald's concern that the FirstNet effort was driven by consultants with industry ties was not directly addressed, but the report did try to tamp down suggestions that FirstNet has decided on a network architecture. "The planning document that has given rise to expressed concerns was a 'straw man,' a FirstNet staff effort intended to provoke reaction and thought among the Board members," the report reads.  An examination of potential conflicts of interest among FirstNet board members will be addressed in a subsequent report.

Commenting on the report in a Sept. 23 meeting, Fitzgerald said, "I found the review committee, while finding no breach of the law, made many recommendations for the board to improve."

FirstNet was conceived after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to solve the problem of real-time radio communications among federal, state, local and tribal authorities. The plan, authorized in 2012, dedicated $7 billion in revenue raised by planned spectrum auctions for the construction of the nationwide network, operating on the high-speed Long Term Evolution Standard.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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