Digital literacy program stays in local hands following contested City Council vote

Austin City Council

Austin City Council

Austin Free-Net will extend its 20-year history of providing digital literacy training to the community’s lower-skilled workforce after City Council Thursday went against staff recommendation and awarded them the contract over an out-of-state competitor.

Austin Free-Net earned the three-year, $860,000 contract to manage the city’s community technology access labs and provide digital literacy training after an 8-2 vote, with Council Members Jimmy Flannigan and Ellen Troxclair voting against, and Council Member Alison Alter abstaining.

“We’re here to stay, we’re planted and we’re here for the community,” said Juanita Budd, executive director of Austin Free-Net.

Although the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Austin Free-Net, it came after a lengthy debate over the city’s process of grading contract bid proposals. This follows a recent trend for City Council, which has faced the decision several times in recent months to vote between an established local business or organization and a higher-scoring but non-local competitor for a city contract.

Last fall, in what Mayor Steve Adler referred to as an “impossible decision,” City Council debated whether to award Austin institutions Threadgill’s and Black’s BBQ airport concession contracts over their higher scoring competitor — Threadgill’s and Black’s BBQ did not win the contracts. Council also debated whether Knot Anymore, a long-time local airport massage business should win a contract over their much higher-scoring, national chain competitor — Knot Anymore did not win the contract.

The city’s contracting office recommended the contract go to Community Technology Network, a San Francisco-based non-profit that aims to bring free digital training to lower skilled and lower income communities. Staff based their recommendation off the grades given to each organization through the city’s bid scoring process.

The bids are scored in four areas: proposed solution, prior experience and personnel, proposed cost and local business presence. Community Technology Network outscored Austin Free-Net 80 to 74 out of a possible score of 100.

In the scoring, local business presence is worth 10 points, something council members have said should be worth more. District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, who initiated the vote to award the contract to Austin Free-Net, referred back to a policy direction from 2014 that said the city should give preference to established local businesses.

Flannigan has consistently criticized the process, saying it should be objective and airtight so that staff’s recommendation does not turn into a political battle between council members. Although he has joined other council members in advocating for an overhaul of the process and grading rubric, Flannigan has remained objective to the current process and voted with staff’s recommendation.

New City Manager Spencer Cronk told council members that he would work with city staff to look for ways to improve the process.

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