City develops study of race and gender disparities in government contracting

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About 20 owners of mostly small businesses met in the council chambers at the Oakland City Hall on Tuesday to discuss the development of a new study on race and gender disparities that evaluates the government’s contracting with small, minority-owned businesses.

The meeting was one of four free outreach meetings held in different Oakland locations that are meant to gauge the business community’s efforts in winning contracts for projects implemented by the government.

“I feel a particular kind of sensitivity in 2017 to Oakland’s role in the national conversation about what it truly means to be a diverse and inclusive nation,” said Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) in her opening remarks, adding that her efforts to conduct this study went back to 2013.

The city government has hired Oakland-based public policy consulting firm Mason Tillman Associates to conduct the government’s first disparity study since 2008. The firm will be examining all prime contracts, which are contracts made directly between the city and an awardee, given by between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2016. The firm’s researchers will be contacting all companies contracted during this period to learn about the subcontracts that they used at the time, to determine if they were awarded to minority-owned businesses. The move is part of an effort to determine if a statistical disparity exists in who receives the contracts. The study will also examine the practices affecting who gets contracts, and make recommendations for the future.

According to Deborah Barnes, director of the City Administrator Office’s contracts and compliance division, the city is required to award 50 percent of its contracts to local and small businesses. Those who meet those requirements are given a preference to be chosen as a contractor for the project.

Following an hour-long presentation, members of the business community took to the podium to voice concerns regarding the study, and to speak about their efforts to obtain a contract.

Dr. Andre Todd, who works for construction management firm Met Resources, Inc, said he was concerned about the time period it takes for newcomers to win a bid. He called for a mentorship program that would follow and evaluate the progress of the small businesses bidding for subcontracts until they eventually win one.

“Is there a program by the City of Oakland that will help us get direction to receive a contract, so we can get the business running versus us always bidding and going to meetings?” he asked. Having to keep bidding, he added, “takes away time from doing private work as well as government.”

“They [prime contractors] already have their people that they work with for years. So, when we come in as a new company offering these services, they say, ‘We don’t really know you and we haven’t really heard of you,’” agreed Marcus Jefferson, vice president of Met Resources.

In an interview following the meeting, Jefferson added that in the last year and a half, his company had attended 25 of these outreach meetings and sent emails to ten different companies working on government projects in the hopes of receiving subcontracting work from them. But, he said, they have never received a response.

“The government has to hold these prime larger companies responsible for not being the good old boy network that are always signing the same sub,” Jefferson said, referring to subcontractors. “They need to be responsible for saying ‘Use a sub that you haven’t used before. Use a small minority sub in Oakland that hasn’t had a contract.’”

While the government does not have an established mentoring program for newcomers, Eleanor Ramsey, president of Mason Tillman Associates, said that they are willing to incorporate it in the study as recommendation. She also added that one of her initial recommendations to the city is to scale down projects so that smaller businesses would be able to be more competitive.

In a document distributed to attendees, members of the Oakland Department of Transportation had listed a number of upcoming government projects, from construction services for the $23 million Embarcadero Bridge to maintenance services for the $400,000 Citywide Emergency Roadway Repairs project, which is meant to restore roadways damaged by storms or in need of repairs to ensure public safety for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Barnes also added that city hiring is not just limited to being goods, but to professional services as well. “We buy a lot of services from A-Z,” said Barnes. “They range from consulting services to translation services to hearing officer services. So, the world is open to you.”

An issue raised by a couple of attendees was the timeframe used to collect data for the study, with some claiming that five years would not be fully representative of the market.

“Why not go back further so we really get a good view into the history of contracting, who has been contracting over the years, who continues to get contracts and who has been excluded?” said June Grant, vice president of the Bay Area branch of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

According to Mason Tillman’s legal advisor, the time frame was due to a particular court requirement. But, Barnes said, a more practical reason is that a longer timeframe would be more costly and the division had a limited budget.

Many of the attendees were there to understand how to initiate the process of working with the government, and were not necessarily aware that gender and race disparity would be part of Wednesday’s conversation.

“I just wanted to know the process of how you interact with the city government and the process that they’re looking for. I didn’t necessarily expect the disparity side of it—but I’m going to look into it now,” said Mark Letang, director of operations at West Oakland-based signage company Mass Factor Media.

“I feel that the information today was great. They gave us information about there even being a study, and then how the city government has to comply with this study,” said Tiffany Cowan, founder of Moocow Productions, which specializes in videography.

Aminatu Yusuf, senior manager of supplier diversity and equity at Mason Tillman, said that the city government has a desire to increase the number of contractors in their projects in order to have a more competitive and inclusive bidding process. The compliance component, in particular, would ensure diversity and equity. “If you’re a local business and you know you’re not getting contracts and you know that there is this provision in place, it’s really imperative that you speak to the person responsible of administering these policies,” Yusuf said.

The study is set to be completed by July, 2018.

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