OAKLAND -- A little-known law precluding the city from doing business with companies connected to nuclear weapons makers has Oakland searching for a new firm to complete a surveillance center that has come under fire from privacy advocates.
The city still plans to move ahead with the Domain Awareness Center, a joint project with the Port of Oakland to build a data hub where police will be able to view feeds from street cameras, gunshot censors and other surveillance tools on a bank of constantly monitored television screens.
City leaders say the center will help police solve crimes and help first responders better serve residents during emergencies.
But opponents have countered that it will allow authorities to stockpile information on city residents, and questioned the city's due diligence in choosing Science Applications International Corporation, which now does business as Leidos Holdings, to build the center.
Opponents seized on both the nuclear issue and the company's track record with municipal contracts. In 2012, SAIC agreed to pay $500 million in restitution and penalties to help it avoid prosecution in connection with a scandal-plagued New York City payroll project.
Although council members in July authorized $2 million in federal grant funds for Leidos to complete the center, support for the deal quickly dissipated.
Councilman Dan Kalb said he met with city staffers after the vote to discuss concerns raised about the firm. "I asked, 'Are we wedded to this company? Is it too late to do a redo,'" he said.
Oakland's Director of Emergency Services, Renee Domingo, who has overseen the surveillance project, refused multiple interview requests for this story since last Friday.
Oakland's Nuclear Free Zone Ordinance was approved by voters in 1988. Although much of the law was invalidated by a federal judge, city officials say one provision left intact prohibits Oakland from doing business with firms that "knowingly engage in nuclear weapons work."
Leidos declined to comment for this story. The company had initially told the city that it was in compliance with the nuclear ordinance. However, after the city asked for additional proof of compliance in August, Scott Handley, the firm's operation contracts manager, wrote it likely had served "U.S. Department of Defense customers that arguably may be categorized as supporting 'nuclear weapons work' under the exceedingly broad definition" in the city's disclosure form.
The firm already had won a $2.9 million contract in March to begin work on the surveillance center. The council's vote in July provided the company an additional $2 million to complete the project.
City staffers are recommending that council members authorize them to find a different vendor for the second phase of the project. Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who sits on the council's Public Safety Committee that will take up the issue next Tuesday, said she planned to support switching vendors. "I think that Oakland has spoken loud and clear for decades about a nuclear free world, and I think this is the right decision," she said.
For opponents of the center, the move to switch vendors did little to appease concerns about the center. "It may be a slightly positive move," David Colburn said. "But it's not going to fundamentally change the project from my point of view."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435