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City to push small contracts for MBE/WBE vendors

Wednesday, October 12, 2005 by

Responding to requests from Council Members and others in the community, the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources has created a new procedure to monitor contract awards by city departments for jobs of less than $5,000.

The MBE/WBE Advisory Board has long considered the under-$5,000 contract sector to be fertile ground for increased participation by small and minority businesses. During a presentation last week, Assistant Director Elaine Carter acknowledged those concerns and outlined new purchasing procedures the city will be implementing for small contracts. The procedures were also presented to Council’s MBE/WBE subcommittee last night.

Each city department will be expected to meet the small and minority business goals set out by the purchasing procedures. Departments will be expected to seek three bids on goods and services under $5,000, starting with qualified minority and women-owned businesses. Once bids are secured, the contract would be awarded the lowest responsive bidder. Departments will not be required to secure competitive bids for contracts under $500.

Carol Hadnot of the Austin Black Contractors Association called the new procedure a good start but urged the Council members to consider a rotation of contractors, so that the contracts could go to a variety of bidders.

“We’re really happy to see this program reactivated,” Hadnot said. “It began with Mayor Lee Cooke, when businesses had an inability to acquire bonding and needed to acquire a track record so they could bid on larger projects.”

Carter said departments were expected to make an honest effort. Leaving a message on an answering machine will not count, Carter said. Instead, each department must make contact with potential minority and small business bidders. That requirement can be waived only if the city lacks minority and small businesses in a particular commodity code.

Council Members Raul Alvarez, Jennifer Kim and Betty Dunkerley sit on the Council subcommittee. Kim and Dunkerley suggested additional outreach efforts to the minority community, such as regular vendor training on the new policy or the addition of a “spot bid” job fair as done for state agencies.

To support the new requirement, the city’s Purchasing Department has created reports specifically to record the dollar amount and types of services purchases, as well as the bids of small and minority businesses. When the city has a number of qualified minority vendors in a specific area, the expectation would be that the city department would seek qualified minority vendors.

Once the contracts are documented, they can be tracked, said Jeff Travillion, director of DSBMR. With tracking, it should be apparent whether departments are performing due diligence. If city departments are not reaching recommended goals, DSBMR likely will speak to the assistant city manager over the department and recommend further training of the department’s purchasing agent.

Purchasing agents in most of the major city departments have been trained. Eventually, the procedures will apply to all 26 departments. Logs will be maintained and submitted on a quarterly basis. Random audits of data will take place throughout the year.

In some cases, city data already shows that particular departments are meeting or exceeding goals. E mergency Medical Services, for instance, filled almost a third of its under $5,000 contracts with minority and small businesses in the third quarter. The City Clerk’s office sits at just under 15 percent, putting it on the cusp. And some departments, which still have until the end of the year to meet their recommended minority-participation guidelines, are hovering below 10 percent.

Court battle on smoking law continues

Bar owners, city present evidence to federal judge

A series of bartenders, nightclub managers, and business owners took the witness stand in Federal Judge Sam Sparks’ courtroom Tuesday to testify about the impact they believed Austin’s smoking ordinance has had on their business. Their testimony was part of a hearing on the request by several bar and nightclub owners for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from enforcing the ordinance.

The plaintiffs argued that the measure, approved by voters on May 5 has driven away their regular customers and has harmed their income. “I live on tips, basically,” said Leslie Jufarace, a bartender at Lovejoy’s Tap Room. She explained that her income had dropped by approximately $800 in September, and that the establishment was frequently empty at closing time when previously customers had stayed until last call. “This is a big difference for me,” she said, estimating that about 80 percent of her customers had been smokers.

The owner of Room 710, a live music venue on Red River, offered a similar assessment of the smoking ban. Asher Garver said his receipts had dropped significantly from August to September. But upon further questioning from Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter, Garver also detailed his September receipts for each year since 2001, outlining up and down swings of approximately the same magnitude. Throughout the day, the city’s representatives pointed to other possible explanations for the drop in revenue, such as the impact on the economy from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina or benefit concerts for victims of those storms that could have drawn customers to other establishments.

Experts for the city pointed to studies done in New York and El Paso showing no decrease in revenues when smoking bans were adopted in those jurisdictions. But the plaintiffs countered that the New York ordinance contained several exemptions, and that city’s smoking ban had gone into effect as the New York economy was beginning its recovery from the impacts of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The plaintiffs provided a competing study of the impact of a smoking ordinance in Dallas showing that bar and restaurant revenues were harmed. But the city’s expert witness, Dr. Philip Huang of the Texas Department of State Health Services, criticized the methodology of that study. “There were significant flaws and errors in the conclusion of the report,” he testified.

Dr. Huang is also conducting his own study in Austin. He testified that he had visited several local bars in August and September, measuring particulates in the air, counting the number of lit cigarettes, and counting the number of patrons in each bar. “There was a nine-fold reduction in the particulates after the ordinance went into effect,” he said. He testified that some of the bars he had visited had shown a decrease in clientele from August to September but others had shown an increase in the number of customers.

The plaintiffs are also aiming their arguments at the language of the ordinance itself, calling it vague and difficult to enforce. Attorney Brian Bishop had numerous questions for one of the city inspectors regarding situations which might result in a violation and what steps businesses should take to enforce the measure. Several bar and club employees were also called to testify about their efforts to inform patrons about the smoking ban.

While the plaintiffs contend the language of the ordinance does not provide a sufficient definition for what constitutes a violation, Carter said the city found the language to be sufficient. “I think the ordinance is being interpreted reasonably,” she said. “There are some very broad terms, but the city has gone out of its way to interpret it and educate the bar owners as to how you can reasonably enforce it.” Should the judge eventually decide to strike down the ordinance, it would leave the city without any regulation governing smoking in public places. “That would mean you could smoke anywhere. There would be no ordinance. I think that would be a very harsh result that they’re not really going to be able to prove they’re entitled to,” she predicted.

More witnesses will testify in the case this morning. Judge Sparks could choose to issue a ruling on the request for a temporary restraining order today, or take the arguments under advisement and issue a ruling at a later date. In the meantime, the city is following the judge’s instructions issued earlier this month. “The court has said we are not to take criminal enforcement, and we will abide by that,” said Carter. But that does not mean bars and nightclubs should allow smoking while the case is in dispute. “The bar owners are still obligated to follow the law. It just means the city is not taking enforcement action. People follow the laws all the time without enforcement authorities standing around to see if they are,” Carter said.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

New advisory group announced . . . Although there are about 90,000 students in Austin, the issues that affect them the most—such as affordable housing, economic development and transportation—are rarely considered from the student’s perspective. Mayor Will Wynn is hoping that creation of the Mayor’s Council on Student Affairs can help to change that. At a press conference Tuesday, the Mayor introduced the 11 members of the new group, which is made up of student leaders from the University of Texas, Huston-Tillotson University, Concordia University, Texas State University, Austin Community College and St. Edwards University. UT student John Greene, who chairs the council, said the group’s first assignment is to find out about student attitudes toward the City of Austin and plans most students make when they graduate. Greene said that task is in line with the Mayor’s goal of finding a way to keep new graduates here in Austin, with specific emphasis on retaining African-American graduates in particular. Michael Sanchez of ACC is vice-chair of the council . . . White Cane celebration today . . . Hundreds of blind and visually impaired Central Texans will march from the Congress Avenue Bridge to City Hall beginning at 9:30am today to mark the city’s fourth annual observance of National White Cane Day. The proclamation ceremony is set for 10am in the City Hall Plaza . . . Technology grants contnued . . . The Austin City Council has allocated $90,000 for the sixth year of the Grant for Technology Opportunities (GTOPs) program — one designed by the Austin Telecommunications Commission to support digital technology projects that show promise of benefiting the community. GTOPs will provide money to Austin organizations and citizens’ groups for a broad array of citizen-driven literacy and access programs. Competitive grants will be awarded for projects focusing on digital opportunities and the digital divide. Applications and information are available now online at: http://www.ctiaustin.org/gtops/application . . . Meetings . . . The S olid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm in room 104 at Waller Creek Plaza . . . The T elecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The City Council Judicial Committee meets at 10am in room 1101 at City Hall . . . Park grand opening . . . Come celebrate Archeology Awareness Month in Texas from 9am to 3pm Saturday at the grand opening of Berry Springs Park and Preserve, 1801 C.R. 152, in Georgetown. The Williamson County Historical Museum offers hands-on activities and the opportunity to visit with an archeologist to learn about 13,000 years of Williamson County history. For information, call 512-635-1490. To reserve space for specific activities, e-mail scrapsofthepast@yahoo.com. . . . JetBlue coming to Austin . . . JetBlue Airways, a darling among budget-conscious business and leisure travelers, will begin daily service from Austin Bergstrom International Airport to New York’s JFK and Boston Logan airports on January 19. The upstart airline bypassed the big airline hubs of Houston and Dallas to come to Austin, but will be directly competing with American Airlines on routes to the Northeast. Look for $79 introductory fares to go on sale today. For more information or to book a flight, visit www.jetblue.com.

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