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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

When going got tough, Spokane County redistricting committee abandoned pricey contractor for a free app

The Spokane County redistricting committee tasked with splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts (a change from the current three) included, at head of table, Elaine Couture, the non-voting chair, Republican-appointed committee member Robin Ball, Democrat-appointed committee member Natasha Hill and Republican-appointed committee member Jim McDevitt. All members of the committee voiced concern with FLO Analytics, the contractor hired to assist them.   (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The committee members who split Spokane County into five commissioner districts spent hundreds of hours drawing maps this summer and fall as they determined how to divide the county into equally populated, politically fair pieces.

The process was always going to be difficult, but it could have been easier. The committee members spent a good chunk of their time struggling to use a contractor-provided map-drawing application they described as clunky, slow and infuriating. Spokane County ultimately spent well over $100,000 on the contractor tasked, in part, with helping the committee draw its maps.

During the final weeks of the high-stakes redistricting process, when the Republican and Democratic committee members had to make difficult compromises quickly and tweak district boundaries on the fly, they abandoned their contractor-provided app in favor of Dave’s Redistricting – an app that’s free, easier to use and offers essential analytics the expensive app lacked.

FLO Analytics, the committee’s contractor, performed several essential duties for the redistricting process. For instance, FLO helped gather public comments on the redistricting plan.

The committee members weren’t enamored with any of FLO’s work. But it was FLO’s technological performance, and the map-drawing software they provided, that drew the bulk of the committee’s ire.

FLO Analytics did not agree to an interview with The Spokesman-Review, but provided a written statement over email.

“We were responsive to committee requests and feedback throughout the project, including concerns about the District Scenario Modeler,” the email said. “We completed the scope of work Spokane County hired us to do.”

It appears possible the committee could have saved headaches and thousands of dollars simply by using Dave’s Redistricting all along. In hindsight, committee members said they wish they’d known about the free app sooner.

“If I’d have started this thing out back then and I knew the ease with which Dave’s Redistricting works as opposed to FLO Analytics – they both get to the same place but a lot different – I think I would have gone a different direction,” said Jim McDevitt, one of the two Republican committee members.

A match not made in heaven

FLO Analytics’ original contract to assist with the redistricting process from May through late October was for $79,250.

Brian McClatchey, one of the two Democrats on the redistricting committee, said the committee didn’t pick FLO, a company that has offices in Seattle, Portland and Beverly, Massachusetts.

The county found the contractor for the committee, and the committee had little choice but to sign off on FLO. The committee had to draw a new map quickly, and with redistricting projects underway throughout the country, contractor options may have been slim.

“It’s like, ‘You can choose any vendor you like as long as it’s this one,’ ” McClatchey explained during the committee’s Sept. 21 meeting.

Robin Ball, one of the two committee Republicans, said FLO made her nervous from the outset.

“I asked the question, ‘What’s the biggest redistricting project you’ve worked on?’ ” Ball said. “At that point they said a population of 60,000, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, they can’t handle this for half-a-million-plus.’”

The redistricting committee didn’t even start drawing maps until August, but FLO was on pace to exceed its $79,250 budget well before then. From May through July, FLO charged the county $52,202. And being over budget wasn’t entirely FLO’s fault.

The committee decided to hold extra public hearings and information sessions in order to get more feedback on the redistricting process. Plus, the committee members wanted to draw maps on their own, instead of merely providing FLO with instructions on how to draw the maps.

“For me, I kind of need to do it myself,” Ball said of the map-drawing process. “It felt cumbersome to me to have to try to articulate what we wanted.”

Still, despite those changes, the committee members weren’t expecting the massive FLO invoices they received. During August, when the committee members began drawing their maps with the FLO-provided application, FLO’s costs soared. By early September, FLO had cost about $90,000, topping the original contract by about $10,000.

The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts.  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

During the committee’s Sept. 7 meeting, FLO asked for an $89,100 change order, which would have increased the contract from $79,250 to $168,350.

“The change order is more than the original contract amount,” McClatchey said during the meeting, nonplussed. “My goodness, I don’t know what to say about it.”

Change orders for government contracts are common. Change orders larger than the original contract amount aren’t.

But it wasn’t just the size of the change order that shocked the committee members. They were especially frustrated because the request came after the committee had just spent significant chunks of its previous two meetings rebuking FLO’s performance.

Natasha Hill, one of the two committee Democrats, said FLO completely ignored her emails during one week in mid-August when the committee members were scrambling to get their draft maps finished.

Hill was so frustrated by FLO’s performance that she asked to see a detailed breakdown of how the company was spending its money – a breakdown it took her two weeks to get. She said she wanted to assess the company’s financials to determine whether the committee should fire FLO and find a new contractor.

All four voting committee members said they were disappointed with FLO’s work.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to give FLO a failing grade right now,” McDevitt said during the committee’s Aug. 24 meeting. “To say I’m a little upset would be an understatement.”

On top of FLO’s communication failures, the committee members said the company failed to provide sufficient technical support, even though the software they’d provided was difficult to use.

“We got a login for software,” Hill said during the committee’s Aug. 31 meeting. “We got zero training. Zero. A video with no voice edits is not training, that’s a demonstration.”

Hill went on to say, “we know we can do this on Dave’s Redistricting without FLO. We could turn it around much faster without FLO.”

The committee members lambasted FLO’s change order request and asked the company to reduce it to the bare essentials. FLO whittled the change order down to $54,000, increasing the contract from $79,250 to about $130,000. The committee reluctantly approved the change order.

Hill said FLO never warned the committee its expenses were getting so out of control.

“I’ve never seen anybody have to double their budget without any advance notice,” Hill said.

McDevitt said he agreed with Hill. He said the committee had no choice but to approve the change order because it was running out of time to finish the redistricting process.

“I feel like we’re stewards of the public money,” he said during the committee’s Sept. 21 meeting. “I take that very seriously and I just don’t like the way this all came down.”

Dave with the save

Dave Bradlee likes following politics.

“I’ve been politically aware forever,” he said.

He was politically aware enough that back in 2009, he felt an urge to tinker with redistricting scenarios on his computer.

But when Bradlee, a retired software engineer and Seattleite who spent much of his career at Microsoft, went looking online for a site that would let him draw his own redistricting maps, he couldn’t find one.

“So I said, ‘I’ll try to write something,’ ” he said.

Dave’s Redistricting was born. Several redistricting aficionados soon learned of the site, and its popularity grew. Bradlee said David Wasserman, an editor of the Cook Political Report, was an early user and admirer of the site. It filled an important niche.

“I sort of view this as a way to put a tool in the hands of regular people,” Bradlee said, “so first of all they can understand what’s going on, so it’s not behind closed doors so much, and then hopefully push to change the process so that it’s more transparent.”

Today, about 10,000 people use Dave’s Redistricting and Bradlee, Alec Ramsay, Terry Crowley and David Rinn keep the site going. They’re all volunteers and use donations to pay for their web hosting.

Bradlee said he was surprised to hear the Spokane County redistricting committee abandoned its contractor in favor of using his app.

“I haven’t heard of any other case where the (committee members) kind of threw up their hands,” he said.

There are two leading software providers for redistricting processes, Bradlee said: Maptitude and Esri. He said licenses are fairly expensive for those apps, maybe $5,000 or so each, but they work well.

Committee members said they found the FLO software, powered by Tableau, painfully difficult to use.

“It was really like being on a dial-up network,” Hill said.

“You couldn’t even see the whole map on your screen,” she said. “I know people who write code, and if they showed me this I’d say, ‘Well this is terrible.’ ”

Ball agreed.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I poked at that FLO Analytics Tableau,” she said.

McClatchey explained the committee members had to switch between different views just to see where the voting precincts were, which was excruciating.

“My process was I would go draw in Dave’s and then go translate that to FLO and it would take me four hours,” McClatchey said. “Anybody can draw a map with Dave’s, it takes you 15 minutes.”

Dave’s Redistricting works well in all of the ways FLO’s software doesn’t. It’s fast, allowing users to make map changes almost instantly. It ’s easy to see where precincts or census blocks lie.

Perhaps most importantly, Dave’s Redistricting allows the committee members to see the Republican and Democratic leanings of each hypothetical district based on past election results.

That feature became especially critical toward the end of the redistricting process when the committee members were bartering and trying to agree on a map that would be fair to each political party. They needed to make rapid changes to maps during their meetings, and only Dave’s Redistricting allowed them to do that easily.

Most of the redistricting committee’s work happened from Aug. 24 to Oct. 21.

Hill said that during the last six weeks of the process, the committee members hardly used the FLO app at all. Once they’d learned about Dave’s Redistricting they didn’t see any reason to keep struggling with the expensive app. So they basically ditched it.

“We did kind of abandon them toward the end because we didn’t need them for anything but the final part,” Hill said.

All’s well that ends well?

It’s difficult to say precisely how much money the redistricting committee could have saved by using Dave’s Redistricting all along, although it’s almost certainly in the thousands of dollars.

However much money was wasted, it wasn’t Spokane County taxpayers’ money – at least not directly.

Spokane County only had to bankroll a small fraction of the redistricting cost. All of the committee’s expenses after July 1 were covered by a $195,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce.

For all of the committee’s issues with FLO, the company did serve an essential purpose.

“We needed experts to do the final draft plan and the final map in order for it to be a neutral third party,” Hill said. “They had a really important role in that sense, but what they didn’t deliver on is assisting us in drawing our own maps.”

There may have been a beneficial side effect to the committee’s FLO frustrations, too.

During the entire redistricting process, the four voting committee members never raised their voices at each other. Even though the final map has major ramifications and largely determines the political makeup of the county commission for at least a decade, the Republicans and Democrats always stayed civil.

Hill thinks FLO had something to do with that.

“I think the issues with FLO helped us build a little bit of camaraderie and rapport with each other,” she said, “because that was something we could agree on.”