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Thursday, November 29, 2007

St. Paul / City's contract efforts faulted

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Study: Minorities, women get minimal amount of spending
BY TIM NELSON
Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 11/28/2007 11:44:40 PM CST


A long-awaited study of the way St. Paul apportions contracts and purchasing says only a tiny fraction of city spending goes to companies owned by women and minorities.

A Milwaukee law firm hired by the city to do a "review and performance audit" found that in 2006, less than 7 percent of $220 million in city contracts went to such firms. The findings parallel long-standing complaints about how the city fulfills its intentions to spread public dollars among a more diverse group of suppliers and service providers.

Former Mayor Randy Kelly set a goal of 10 percent in 2004, the last time a measurable goal was made public.

"Those who do business with the city ... need to know that the city and (Housing and Redevelopment Authority) are serious about their inclusion policies and that compliance is not just a 'paperwork' requirement," the report says.

The 120-page report was handed over to the City Council at its meeting Wednesday, seven months after the $80,000 study began.

It includes 44 densely worded recommendations, ranging from "increased clarity with regard to the various compliance goals" to installing an electronic certification data system.

"I think the biggest thing is that there has been no accountability," said City Attorney John Choi, assigned by Mayor Chris Coleman to carry out the report's suggestions. "There is a division of management, and no one really is in charge (of monitoring results)."

The issue dates back, officially, almost 20 years. Studies in the 1990s found indication of racial and gender discrimination in the city's contracting practices. The city established a vendor outreach program in 1997 to find more qualified suppliers and vowed to comply with existing anti-discrimination measures.

Critics say the city failed at that effort. Edward McDonald, then the city's top minority business outreach official, was fired in 2003 after publicly charging the city wasn't living up to its goals. An ad-hoc group, the Equal Access Working Group, has demanded for four years that the city bring in a third party to assess the city's track record.

Two lawsuits also have been filed making similar allegations of discrimination, one in federal court by contractor Frederick Newell and Michael Thomas of Cornerstone Community Realty & Mortgage Services.

Thomas was on hand for the release of the report and commended the effort.

"But we are seeing minority businesses closing their doors while we've been waiting for this," he said. "They just can't hold their breath any longer. These are the hopes and dreams of families that are being lost while the city is having ceremonies."

He was joined in the council chambers by another black business owner, Brian O'Connor, who said he bid unsuccessfully 22 times for city-related trucking contracts. He has sued the city in state court.

City officials wouldn't address the merits of the legal cases or how the audit might affect the city's position. But Coleman committed to making improvements on the basis of the report - the first such voluntary study of spending and contracting by any city in the country, according to James Hall, the Milwaukee lawyer who wrote the report.

"When I ran for office in 2005, it was on the premise that everyone had to be participating in what's happening in the city of St. Paul," Coleman said. "When I read this report, one of the things that I am proud of is the fact that clearly there is no ill intent on the part of the city ... but the report reminds us that we need to do better. Doing OK is not good enough."

Tim Nelson can be reached at tnelson@pioneerpress.com or 651-292-1159.

9:24 AM  

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