Council members, speakers, clash over minority contracts
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Discussion of plans to increase the number of minority municipal contracts in Greensboro briefly spilled over into acrimony this week before cooler heads determined to stay on course prevailed.
The city last year developed a plan, known as Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE), to increase the number of smaller, mostly locally owned firms that do business with the city. The policy went into place on Jan. 1, but the program was just staffed in September, when a director and one staff member were hired.
The city executed an $80,000 contract with Sustainable Community Resources to provide community outreach and capacity building services beginning this past March. An executive summary of the contract dated Oct. 29 was included in the city council’s meeting materials this week, and several members of the SCR team attended Monday’s meeting to urge for more progress in implementing the city’s MWBE goals.
Minority participation goals are a political hot topic in Greensboro, as traditional power players are reluctant to give up their control of the flow of tax dollars into their firms in favor of upstart, often understaffed grassroots businesses. These contracts involve everything from construction of the Tanger Performing Arts Center to things as basic as pouring sidewalks along Pisgah Church Road or repairing water and sewer infrastructure.
The inclusion of minority firms as subcontractors in large construction projects is often unpopular among major construction firms, some of which have long-standing relationships with established contractors to perform a wide array of services such as electrical wiring, framing, concrete and masonry, and paving. However, for the minority firms, just one small piece of the work can make the difference between sustainability and bankruptcy.
So it’s the conflict between frugal budgeting, and the savings that come with capacity, versus nurturing a sustainable economy in high-poverty areas such as East Greensboro, where many of the minority firms are located.
Communications consultant Gerry McCants, a member of the SCR team that worked to get the city’s MWBE program off the ground, hammered that point home when he rose to speak at Monday night’s council meeting.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” McCants said. He chaired the MWBE committee that gave rise to the current program, following on the heels of a disparity study conducted in 2012. The study found a significant gap between the hiring of minority owned firms and their availability to do the work.
McCants said the city had begun to move in the right direction with the policy implementation in January, but that the momentum had stalled.
“Today, the numbers are horrible. I’m just going to be honest with you,” McCants said. He asked that the city council plan a future work session to meet with minority-owned businesses in order to hear their concerns.
“There are some unhappy folks out there in the community,” McCants said. “I know most of you approve of this process. If we can impact this particular community … you could create a thousand jobs. Maybe two thousand.”
At-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson urged Mayor Nancy Vaughan to lead the effort. Vaughan was open to the idea, but noted the progress made since the new policy went into effect.
“I think we need to realize that the city has really stepped up their game to the point that we rejected the High Point Road bids twice,” Vaughan said. “We rejected the War Memorial Auditorium demolition. We are holding people accountable for what these bids are and to say that no progress has been made, I think, is wrong.”
Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who represents part of east and southeast Greensboro, said the policy needed more publicity, noting that very few people outside of city staff knew about the rejected contracts.
Hightower noted the political divide over the policy, saying that the debate often devolved into a quagmire when it reached council.
“Right now we do have a side of town where it’s not quite fair, and we know that,” Hightower said. “We constantly talk about it. It is sensitive, I get it, but it’s time to move forward.”
Mayor Vaughan agreed, but a comment she made next seemed to open the door for the conflict that soon followed.
“There are certain people who have been charged with outreach and we need to make sure that outreach has been done as well,” Vaughan said.
McCants, the communications consultant who worked on the contract, remained standing at the podium. He asked if he could wrap up his comments, but Councilman Zack Matheny urged him to remain and answer a few questions.
A large, but gently spoken man, McCants remained as Matheny began what can only be described as a dressing down of the work McCants performed.
Matheny began by addressing the unhappiness of community members that had been referred to.
“I sit here and I’m unhappy,” Matheny said. He referred to the $82,000 contract, and the executive summary, and began to read from the portion that described the goals, which were to communicate the plan to the public and assist city staff in implementation.
“I have a copy of it,” McCants said, holding his up.
“Perfect,” Matheny replied. The two men went back and forth, with McCants repeating that he had a copy of the document, and Matheny attempting to get McCants to agree that he had been paid $17,000 from the contract.
“What I’m unhappy about is we paid $82,000 so y’all can help us,” Matheny said, at which point McCants cut him off and the two men proceeded to talk over each other. McCants urged Matheny to look at the summary of tasks performed as part of the contract.
The terse exchange continued until Matheny spoke passionately, with his voice rising for emphasis.
“If people are unhappy, did we hire the wrong people?” Matheny asked.
The two men began speaking over each other again, with McCants offering to sit down with Matheny to discuss the matter, at which point Hightower entered the fray, asking the mayor to intercede.
“This is ridiculous,” Hightower said.
“The fact of the matter is that this is a program that benefits minorities and we’ve been arguing about it. We need to be involved.”
Matheny, who reminded folks that he had the floor, had grown visibly irritated with being interrupted and said that he would filibuster the item if he was not allowed to finish.
“We hired consultants, we hired this consultant, they hired Mr. McCants. The reality is, let’s not sweep this under the rug, we had a contract,” Matheny said. “The contract that we got the executive summary for had to do with MWBE. So what I’m saying from a city perspective is don’t sweep this under the rug. We are working … We shouldn’t be up here thinking the city is not doing anything.”
The executive summary list 12 functions performed by SCR as part of the contract. They range from planning community outreach meetings, crafting inclusionary language for city request for proposals, and serving on the goal setting committee to working with major contractors to facilitate relationships with MWBE businesses.
SCR team member Selena Young spoke in defense of the services provided.
“I hope you all don’t believe that what we did was in vain or that we did not put forth a true effort in getting inclusionary practices put in place,” Young said. “Yes, there are some very unhappy minority and women owned businesses. We can say the city is putting forth strong efforts, which you are.
But there is still work to be done. What we hope that you all will continue to do is push forward with the MWBE program, not allowing anything to disrupt that.”
After another speaker said the city’s MWBE program lacked enforcement “teeth”, Matheny expressed his frustrations again with the perception that the city has done little in this regard, despite having spent $300,000 to implement the plan.
“Don’t confuse my unhappiness for lack of support to try to get something that has teeth,” Matheny said. ” What I’m unhappy about is that we’ve made such a significant investment with strategic partners to enhance and develop our MWBE and two years later, $300,000 later, we’re still not there. That’s what makes me unhappy.”
Yvonne Johnson reentered the debate with her calming demeanor.
“This is a situation and a problem in America that has gone on for hundreds of years,” Johnson said softly. “The cure or the solution is not going to happen in two years. But that should not be any reason for us to not be vigilant about working as hard as we can to make it happen as soon as it can.”
After the applause died down, Mayor Vaughan noted that the city has added “teeth” to its program, saying the city now audits contracts for MWBE compliance.
“Not only do you have to qualify, but by the end of the project you better prove you’ve used them,” Vaughan said. “On big projects that are going on downtown, we put a higher threshold on these projects. I think the city is committed to doing the right thing. It may just take us a little while to get there, but we are all working toward the same thing.” !