Consultant asks if Metro gives them fair shake

By JANELL ROSS
Staff Writer

Minorities and women owned nearly a quarter of the companies that bid for city contracts over a recent five-year period but won just 8 percent of the locally financed work at six major governmental agencies, a review of Metro spending has found.

 

White-male-owned contractors and suppliers won $2.4 billion in city contracts in the 1999-2003 review period, while firms owned by women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities took home $217 million, according to a preliminary report on disparity in government done for Metro by an Atlanta-based consultant.

Rodney Strong, an attorney with Griffin & Strong, the consultant that handled the review, concluded that minority- and women-owned businesses face "extraordinary, if not discriminatory barriers" to winning public work in Nashville.

"I don't know how many studies can be done before somebody in leadership, somebody at the top, says this has to be fixed," said Metro Councilwoman Brenda Gilmore, after learning of the study.

The report, to be reviewed by city purchasing officials later this summer, focused on spending by Metro government, the Nashville Airport Authority, Nashville Electric Service, the public school system, the Metro Transit Authority and the Metro Development and Housing Agency.

White males get most

The study found that firms owned by African-Americans and by white women each won about 2 percent of major local work.

When smaller jobs and subcontracting work was added to the mix, African-Americans got about 3.5 percent of the city work and white women 2.5 percent. Contractors and other vendors labeled as Hispanic, Asian and Native American each got less than 1 percent.

The city's procurement standards board, a panel of city employees and local residents that reviews purchasing rules, may consider changes in contract procedures later this month, said procurement director Jeff Gossage. The Metro Council would have to approve any new programs the group recommends.

Melvin Gill, a licensed Nashville architect who has vied for, won and lost government contracts over a 20-year career, said he was keenly interested in whether procedures are revised.

He said current rules allowed city contract awards to be influenced by subjective criteria such as how many points a bidder gets for "relevant experience."

"I'm not for anybody getting any work they can't do," Gill said.

"But I just want a sense that the evaluation process … doesn't have room for people's views, the preferences and biases they bring to the table."

A review of purchasing practices in Nashville comes as a number of cities are grappling with the debate over fairness in contracting in light of federal court rulings that prohibit outright quotas for minority- or women-owned businesses.

Programs in place at the six Metro agencies at the center of Nashville's disparity study simply encourage agencies — and general contractors who get city jobs — to work with small or economically disadvantaged businesses, but the rules don't impose penalties if goals aren't met.

Efforts lack sincerity

Some contractors say the current rules don't work very well.

Female general contractor Tonya Jones, founder and president of Mark IV Enterprises, says her office gets deluged with faxed requests from large, mostly white-male-owned firms looking for diverse subcontractors when a bid deadline approaches.

"A lot of times these aren't about the beginnings of a beautiful business relationship," said Jones, a white woman who has won some city work. "It's about trying to fulfill a requirement. All they have to do (to potentially win a public contract) is show that they made a good-faith effort to include (women) and minority businesses. It's really all about the paper trail."

Gilmore, who also is a state representative, said the Metro area had made big improvements in schools, undergone a building boom and tackled other serious problems.

"But in terms of working with women and minorities so that they can share in the
economic boom that is going on in Nashville … on that I would have to give us a D," she said.

Among other findings, Griffin & Strong found severely limited access to contracts for minority- and women-owned firms in Nashville's private business sector, a trend that mirrored the results in public contracting.

White-male-owned firms received 99.95 percent of construction work requiring building permits in Nashville between 1999 and 2003, the study said.

Atlanta has done better

Experts in contracting say other cities have reversed poor track records and boosted the involvement of women- and minority-owned companies this decade.

Carefully crafted programs that take race and gender into account have proved to be effective around the country, said Anthony Robinson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Atlanta, for instance, found in 1998 that only 1.7 percent of city contracts went to minorities. It altered its business opportunity program, and tweaked it after a court challenge, to strongly encourage minority companies to bid or partner with majority firms. Since then, more than 30 percent of city contract dollars have consistently gone to minority-owned companies.

"What people have to recognize," said Robinson, who is black, "is that we may wish
the world were fair, but in reality it often is not. In the absence of these programs in city after city, a totally imbalanced proportion of the work goes to one group — white men. At the same time, everybody pays the taxes, the utility fees and the like that pay for these projects."

Some want merit awards

Others say that paying special attention to race and gender in public contracting is wrong.

"We believe firmly that public contract awards ought to be based on merit and qualifications, nothing more," said Sharon Browne, a lead attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that has opposed affirmative action programs in numerous court cases.