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Friday, May 02, 2008

Merging several offices could improve access for minority- and women-owned businesses in St. Paul, proponents say

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Blogger Bob said...

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Proposal's goal: Eliminate barriers in St. Paul
By CHRIS HAVENS, Star Tribune

April 30, 2008

After years of failing to hire more than a smattering of minority- and women-owned businesses for city work, St. Paul is considering a big change.

City Attorney John Choi and community members have suggested the creation of a new department to oversee all contracting operations that would merge three existing offices that deal with business and the Human Rights Department.

That idea will be shared with residents tonight in what is likely to be the last public forum before a final report goes to Mayor Chris Coleman.

The idea follows years of community prodding and lawsuits, an audit and nearly six months of discussion. The process has sought to heal old wounds and break down racial barriers.

Still, the plan dismays some in the black community who fear merging the Human Rights Department with other operations would diminish its role.

Several people blasted the idea at a March meeting, saying it would wipe out a 40-year-old institution.

The department's director, Tyrone Terrill, said turning human rights into a division of a larger unit will make it susceptible to being wiped out in future budget cuts.

Terrill also said he doesn't see how a merger would give his department more resources.

Across the country, cities and counties have made sweeping changes in an effort to hire more businesses run by women and minorities, said Samuel Myers Jr., chairman of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota.

"The issue is not just about fairness or equity, it is about the efficient use of and development of the business and entrepreneurial talent of women and minorities in the community," Myers said.

Choi said there's no intention to reduce the role of the Human Rights Department, which could be renamed Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, indicating a stronger emphasis on inclusiveness in business dealings.

The new human rights department would handle civil rights enforcement and outreach, contract analysis and procurement, recruiting businesses and helping them flourish, and contract monitoring, investigation and enforcement, he said. It's too early to estimate the cost of merging, he said.

City leaders have made improving the system a priority. The City Council and mayor signed off on an independent audit in 2005. It was completed last November, and Choi was charged with leading a group to carry out its recommendations. A report was due by the end of February, but Coleman granted an extension.

The audit faulted the city for poor communication, lack of accountability and lack of resources. It noted that fewer than 7 percent of $220 million worth of contracts in 2006 went to minority- and woman-owned businesses. It didn't say the city was being intentionally discriminatory, but a 1995 study commissioned by the city indicated "marketplace discrimination."

The city is awaiting the outcome of a $250,000 disparity study, a marketplace analysis to determine the use and availability of firms owned by disabled people, members of minority groups and women.

A new director would be picked, with help from a community group, to lead the new rights department. That person would have a set term and could be fired only by recommendation of the Human Rights Commission and approval by the mayor or by recommendation of the mayor and approval by the City Council.

Lonnie Ellis, who works with ISAIAH, a coalition of 90 churches, said he fears that the proposal is focused on structure at the expense of what should be its overwhelming concern: compliance.

But to many who have been at the table, in the meetings and away from the bounty, the plan is a step toward forging a new path.

"Change is hard, but the system that's been in place certainly has not worked, and I just see this as an opportunity with the commitment of the mayor and others to move this forward," said Nick Khaliq, president of the NAACP chapter in St. Paul.

Indeed, Coleman has made public his desire for change. On a recent Sunday meeting at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, he said he would be a failure as a mayor if he didn't follow through with the audit's recommendations. "You can't have a successful economy when some are participating and others aren't," he said.

The Rev. James Thomas said he believes the mayor is sincere. "But to tell me something and to show me something are two different things," he said.

Calvin Littlejohn, owner of Tri-Construction, said he likes the idea of one department handling contracts. He hasn't done work with the city, he said, although he wants to, because he has heard it's a difficult organization to navigate.

The goal of the new department would be to help people such as Littlejohn. Getting there will be difficult, Choi acknowledged. "We're still open to trying to refine the report," he said.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you have an irish name you are put at the top of the bid list.

6:19 PM  

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