Council accepts recommendations on minority contracting

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Councilwoman Sharon Hightower quizzes City Attorney Tom Carruthers on the city's efforts to improve minority contracting. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro City Council approves recommendations in a disparity study focused on minority contracting, but implementation remains a matter of contention.

Greensboro City Council voted unanimously to approve a slate of recommendations by a private consultant for improving minority and women participation in city contracting on Tuesday, although some members remained noncommittal about a request for additional funding to ensure compliance.

The comprehensive slate of recommendations, part of March 2018 Disparity completed by the Atlanta-based Griffin & Strong public policy and law firm, calls on the city to revise aspirational goals, increase the monitoring capacity of its M/WBE Program Office, reduce bonding requirements to open opportunities for smaller businesses, improve data tracking on minority and women business subcontracting, and increase vendor rotation.

The firm also recommended improving compliance by businesses that receive tax incentives and infrastructure improvements. The report found only 1 percent minority and women business utilization on projects that received assistance from the city. The firm also flagged the city’s on-call contracting program, finding that only three out of 49 firms contracted were either minority- or women-owned. The firm wrote, “On-call contracts can be a deterrent to an open procurement process, particularly when they are closed to any new entrants for 3-5 years. Whenever possible, contracts should be separately bid, except in emergency situations.”

City staff partially agreed with the recommendation.

“The flexibility of on-call contracts for critical services is necessary to maintain city infrastructure, facilities and services,” the report said in the city staff response section.

“It’s very sad that we’re going through these Jim Crow-like areas, economically,” Galen Oliver told council members. “We’re 35 percent of taxpayers; 49 percent of the population. And I’m here trying to do the best I can to encourage and give hope to those who are not employed. Because people just getting out of prison needs jobs. They need opportunities.”

Addressing Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann directly, Oliver said, “African-American firms hire African-Americans. We see beyond what some of the others don’t see in our community.”

Hoffmann, who represents District 4, expressed disagreement with Oliver’s language.

“I think it’s not helpful when I read in the press and I hear that this is being characterized as some sort of Jim Crow economics,” she said.

Council members identified increasing the share of minority and women contracting as a priority at their retreat earlier this year. But, with few exceptions, they balked at a demand by the Greensboro Business League, an organization that promotes black economic empowerment, to allocated $1.5 million to support the M/WBE program. The Greensboro Business League also asked council to use some of that money to pay Griffin & Strong to oversee the implementation of an improvement plan.

“Every disparity study that the city has done, they’ve had recommendations — good recommendations,” said Earl Jones, a former council member who is the co-chair of the Greensboro Business League. “But guess what? They weren’t implemented appropriately. Griffin & Strong has expertise. They have the track record, and they have implemented the program working with the city manager, the city attorney and the staff.”

Councilwoman Sharon Hightower was one of the few members who gave a full-throated endorsement to the Greensboro Business League’s request.

“Black folk are not working, and I’m not going to apologize for saying it,” she said. “I see it, I hear it every day. They are being left out, omitted from the process…. If it takes $1.5 million, we spend it.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said she was willing to put additional money into the M/WBE program, along with Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy, an at-large member.

“I can’t say it’s $1.5 million,” Kennedy said. “I can say it’s something.”

Kennedy, who was elected to council last year, also said she needs to take responsibility for doing a better job as an elected representative.

“One of the things I’ve said, along with the mayor pro tem [Yvonne Johnson] and Councilwoman Hightower is that I will never again vote on spending money that doesn’t meet its M/WBE goals,” Kennedy said.

Indeed, Kennedy, Hightower, Johnson and Councilwoman Goldie Wells cast the four votes in opposition to awarding a $349,448 contract to Cisco Capital to support the city’s “unified communications (VOIP phone system) platform” for five years. The company received a waiver from minority and women participation goals, according to city documents.

In contrast, a $497,300 contract unanimously approved by council to Arcadis G&M of North Carolina for sewage outfall improvements achieved a goal of 14 percent minority participation.

Hightower credited the comparatively high level of minority participation to the Water Department going “out of their way to do outside the box.”

In other business, the council unanimously approved the creation of a Criminal Justice Advisory Commission to monitor and review trends in policing, and provide regular reports to the public. The resolution shifts the police community review board, which investigates complaints about police misconduct from members of the public, from the Human Relations Commission to the new Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. The new commission will report directly to the city manager’s office. Assistant City Manager Barbara Harris said the commission will have one staff member assigned to provide support.

The city council also approved the sale of property at the southwest corner of West Gate City Boulevard and South Elm Street from the Greensboro Redevelopment Commission to Winston-Salem-based Arden Communities to develop about 60 townhomes and 8,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial retail.

“I encourage you to use as much of the minority contractors as you possibly can,” Johnson said. “Because this is a minority community. It was. It will be integrated, but I would hope that you would use as many of our minority contractors and women as you can.”

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