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Black contractors’ concerns dominate MBE/WBE meeting

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The mood at last week’s MBE/WBE advisory committee meeting might have been less contentious than last month, but the issues of the Austin Black Contractors Association appeared no closer to being resolved. Last month, an exchange between a member of the group and an assistant city attorney resulted in a police investigation because the staff member felt she was being physically threatened.


The Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Enterprise & Small Business Enterprise Procurement Enterprise Committee meeting on Tuesday night was dominated by the concerns of the ABCA, from citizens’ comments through a discussion of a new proposed Job Order Contract proposal.


ABCA members continue to be unhappy with the ways that prime contractors appear to be dodging their obligations to hire minority sub-contractors. During citizens’ communications, James Harper said prime contractors often use trucking sub-contractors to meet good faith goals.


For instance, a contractor’s compliance document might promise a minority-owned trucking company would haul 90,000 cubic yards of construction debris, but when that company ends up hauling only a quarter of that amount, the contractor might still claim to have made a good faith effort to hire minority-owned business subcontractors.


Harper pointed to recent awards on projects such as a $6 million storm drainage improvement project on Lady Bird Lake, a project noted on handouts to the committee as part of last month’s construction award project goals. On that project, trucking made up a large portion of the minority contractor goals. Overall, minority participation on the project was pegged at 3.52 percent.


“That ought to be sending somebody a red flag,” Harper said of the dominance of trucking on sub-contracting, going on to say city staff ought to be more aggressive in reviewing such numbers. “They really don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have anybody over there who has ever been in construction, ever been in business. When you don’t know anything about the business, you don’t know what to do.”


Committee members did not respond to the specifics of Harper’s comments, but Chair Adrian Lopez Neely did note that the general topic of minority participation goals – and how those goals were met – was supposed to be on the agenda for March. Neely said it was his fault for not recognizing it was not on the agenda.


Asked by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza whether the discussion was intended to center on how goals or participation needed to be improved, Neely said both. Too often, contractors were achieving minority-owned business goals, down to the penny, while minimizing the participation of various trades.


Specific goals, Garza noted, are prescribed by the city’s availability study. Trying to urge, or enforce, a variety of trades could be “a very, very complicated conversation,” Garza told Neely.


“The overall foundation of the program is that it’s a goals-based system,” Garza said. “Unless we went to something different, like required participation by trade, there’s just not a lot of opportunity we have.”


While Garza insisted city staff had made efforts at contracting and outreach in order to increase contractors’ use of minority sub-contractors, members of the ABCA were critical of how well those efforts were going. Alayne Johnson, ABCA president, said the availability list at the city’s Department of Small and Minority Business Resources was woefully out of date, lacking 35 new minority contractors. That had been pointed out at numerous meetings, she said.


“DSMBR needs to correct it,” Johnson said. “That needs to be the first order of business, in order for everyone to get the opportunity to work.”


Neely agreed, saying that specific concern should not remain unaddressed. 


“We can’t just let that one sit out there,” Neely said. “What’s the plan for improving the availability list and making those corrections? These concerns need to be cleared up.”


Garza said the commission would be presented with a memo this week to discuss both the specific and general concerns raised to the commission.


Commissioners appeared somewhat split on how the goals should be addressed. Vice Chair Ed Lowenberg, for instance, thought it might be a situation of trying to make it easier for minority contractors to participate. Neely, on the other hand, wasn’t necessarily convinced the city had set the proper goals, although he wasn’t ready to prescribe scope-specific goals – specific requirements for various trades – on the projects the city provided to contractors.


“I think we can come up with something that can right this ship,” Neely said. “I just think this ship is kind of sinking right now.”


Garza said the expectations of the commission should be clear. The current ordinance offered no latitude to staff on trade participation. From the staff perspective, the preferred route was to continue to build and encourage relationships between contractors and the minority sub-contractor community.


Neely pointed out that commissioners should have the right to see compliance plans and scrutinize how goals were being met. He pointed out to colleagues that draft Council agendas gave commissioners the opportunity to look at city contracts, even if those contracts did not make their way onto the commission agenda.


Multiple commission members also raised concerns about the city’s new proposed Job Order Contract, which would use three or four prime contractors to handle regular ongoing city contracts. Commission members said the structure of the city’s proposal did not mirror the Job Order Contracts used by local entities, such as the University of Texas and the Austin Independent School District, and commissioners wanted to know why contractors would have a rotation schedule.


That led to some extended discussion on how the city was going to deploy the program. Neely urged Garza to attempt the JOC on a pilot basis, possibly with the Parks and Recreation Department, in order to work through potential issues.

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