Council examines disparity in awarding of contracts

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The City of Tacoma’s efforts to steer more contracts to businesses owned by women or minorities have not been adequate in promoting equity, according to a consulting firm hired to study the topic. Tacoma City Council heard a presentation on Sept. 25 from Griffin & Strong P.C. The Atlanta-based firm specializes in disparity research, contract compliance, program development and supplier diversity. Two of its employees, Project Manager Michelle Clark Jenkins and Deputy Project Manager Sterling Johnson, delivered the presentation.

In 1998 Washington voters passed Initiative 200, which effectively ended affirmative action in the state. As a result, efforts made by the city to steer some of its contracts to women and minorities have to be tailored to comply with the law. Generally, the city has taken into account other factors, such as the size of a business or how long it has been in operation, as opposed to focusing on the race or gender of its owners.

The study finds that the majority of companies that land city contracts in several industries are owned by white males. In construction, this accounted for 84.38 percent. Hispanics owned 4.69 percent, non-minority women 3.13 percent, Asians 2.97 percent Blacks 2.81 percent, Natives 2.03 percent and. In architecture and engineering, minorities owned 18.64 percent of businesses and non-minority women owned 19.61 percent. In the services industry, minorities accounted for 12.79 percent and non-minority women 12 percent. For goods, minorities owned 5 percent and non-minority women 5.27 percent.

The firm found that the city’s Small Business Enterprise program has been ineffective. While the city has policy tools to encourage participation of small businesses and minority or women-owned businesses, their effective has varied. Project goals lack good faith efforts and staffing and resource shortages prevent the program from fully meeting its goals. Johnson said requirements about location and net worth appear to be barriers to participation for some small businesses.

Several other states have passed laws banning affirmative action. As a result, some large cities do not even attempt to steer contracts to women or minorities. In contrast, the firm did a study of a major project in its hometown, the new stadium for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. The City of Atlanta set a goal of 31 percent of the work to be done by minority or women contractors. The firm found that 36 of the work went to such businesses.

Existing race-neutral programs can be more effectively administered, according to the findings of the study. Race and gender-conscious programs that do not violate current state law are supported by the findings and should also be utilized. If Initiative 200 is abolished, the study supports preferences for women and minority-owned businesses, such as subcontractor goals.

The firm’s advice takes into account I-200. Clark Jenkins noted there have been court cases in this state regarding the law. “We have to give you legally defensible advice,” she said. “If we make recommendations to you that make you a sitting duck, we are not doing our job.”

The city could do more to get information out to a wider range of businesses. Johnson said established construction companies, generally owned by white men, benefit from an informal network in which they have access to information that puts them at an advantage when bidding. In the Tacoma area, he said some such companies have some “animosity” toward efforts to steer work to smaller, minority-owned businesses, which tend to be subcontractors. Clark Jenkins said the city should demand that established companies make a stronger effort to contact minority or women-owned businesses as potential subcontractors.

Johnson said the city has only one full-time equivalent person working on such efforts, which he described as “an undoable position for that individual.”

Councilmember Justin Camarata said the current situation appears to be racism. “If we are not trying to undo this, we are perpetuating it.”

An effort to repeal I-200 is underway. Activists gathered in Seattle last month for a rally in support of Initiative 1000. It would change state law to allow affirmative action that does not constitute preferential treatment. Under the proposal, affirmative action could be used to create equal opportunities by recruitment, hiring, outreach, goal setting and other methods. Preferential treatment would be defined as selecting a less-qualified business solely based on the race or gender of ownership.

Supporters tried to place the measure on the ballot for this November, but were unable to collect enough signatures for it to qualify. Supporters now have until Jan. 4 to collect about 260,000 valid signatures. If they do, it would go to the Legislature, which could enact it into law, or put it to a public vote in November 2019.

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