Review of St. Paul contracting procedures, inclusiveness

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Audit/performance review of St. Paul contracting procedures regarding inclusion of minorities, females and others sets stage for changes

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who stressed “equal access for everyone” as a part of his campaign platform in 2005, says a recently released audit and performance review of the city’s contracting practices that center on inclusiveness, or rather, the lack thereof, signals change.

The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder will publish a more detailed analysis of the audit report next week – watch for it on news stands and here!

The report emphasizes a lack of accountability for certain legal provisions that were designed to open the doors to more minorities, women and people with disabilities. The audit/ performance review probed Planning and Economic Development (PED) and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), the agencies responsible for more than half of the city’s contracts. PED and HRA lack coordination on various compliance issues, according to the 104-page report that investigated contractual activities from 2002 to the present.

Minorities and women saw less than 7 percent of $220 million-worth of city contracts combined last year, according to the report. Additionally, goals for inclusion haven’t been articulated since 2004. A city taskforce called the Equal Access Working Group (EAWG) requested the audit as one way to respond to some community members’ longstanding complaints that they are conveniently left out, again and again.

A couple of lawsuits that are still in litigation in state and federal court charge the city has failed to fulfill its inclusiveness mandates. Separately, a “disparity study” that will provide insight as to what extent minorities, females and others are excluded, is being conducted and will be completed in January, according to city officials.

Auditor James Hall, a Milwaukee-based attorney and his legal team, which specialize in civil rights work, began their research this spring. The process of bringing the audit forward, however, has been in the works for several years. Hall lauded the city for its willingness to undergo this sort of audit/performance review. “We’re not aware of any other city doing this kind of audit,” he said.

The audit/performance review highlights needed improvements within both departments, including enforcement and monitoring of the vendor outreach program (chapter 84) and an affirmative action ordinance (chapter 183). It lays out detailed recommendations for addressing weaknesses from policy to division of labor to recordkeeping (to read the full report, visit stpaul.gov and click on “final report”).

Currently, St. Paul performs a number of outreach efforts, Hall noted, but there are many ways to enhance compliance. One of the biggest issues that became evident right away, the auditors agreed, is that several employees are dealing with compliance issues at some level, but they don’t necessarily fit together. Hall and his team recommend that the city designate one person to oversee compliance.

HRA, in particular, needs to make a stronger statement about its administration of the vendor outreach program and affirmative action ordinances, the report states. Contracting procedures ought to be standardized, while employees need to be made aware of how their duties contribute to the larger picture. In some cases, special measures should be taken, such as withholding payment to a noncompliant company until it is up to speed. Formation of an oversight committee is among other suggestions in the report.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Mayor Chris Coleman called the audit a “fresh and honest” view of what the city needs to do to increase diversity on city-funded projects. Up until now, “no one has taken ownership of this,” he said. “I’m confident we’re doing the right thing and we will be better …this is an opportunity to move forward with specific and concrete steps.”

The Mayor appointed City Attorney John Choi to spearhead this effort, which will involve determining what kinds of changes are feasible. Choi will devise a plan for carrying out those recommendations along with consideration for continued community engagement.

Choi, a two-year city employee, said he’s looking forward to seeing the implementation through. “There are a lot of things identified in the audit that need to happen…we need to recreate the system,” said Choi. “The Mayor wants to implement as many of these recommendations as possible.”

Community advocate Irene Markley, who was in the crowd at a community follow-up meeting at Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church on Thursday, is a participant in a social justice interfaith organization called ISAIAH. Markley said it’s disturbing to see laws followed selectively. “I think it’s a good thing the city is acting on this…but it seems as if they are things it could do immediately because of what the law calls for. It’s disappointing no one acknowledged this,” she said.

EAWG member Clifton Boyd, a business owner who is the president of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said he’s relieved the audit is finally out, but he cautioned, “The job isn’t finished. We want to be able to continue to work on this. The report is not as detailed as we would have liked,” he said.

Right now, a handful of contractors whose good faith efforts for inclusion are questionable, still dominate the city-developed landscape, he explained, adding, “There are no sanctions for not meeting goals [minority and female inclusion]…we have to make sure the proper personnel is in place to conduct business the way it should be done.”

Anna Pratt is a journalist living and working in Minneapolis. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.

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