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September 2, 2014, 5:36 am

Advocates condemn city hiring practices

Government must do more to meet minority inclusion goals, contractors say

 

In a scene that’s been played out for decades, minority business owners and their advocates were back at City Hall again Monday morning urging city government to step up and insure they get their fair share of city contracts.

“Years have passed and we have all aged with time and there has been minimal change in increasing minority participation,” said Jihad Ali, executive director of the National Association of Minority Contractors, who went on to call the mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity a failure, accuse the agencies that monitor contracts of engaging in “glaring conflicts of interest” all of which, he said, has “let down the citizens of Philadelphia and removed the ladder of opportunity.”

However, there was a new twist to this week’s familiar litany of complaints.

Ali and five others spoke to the newly created Economic Opportunity Review Committee at its first meeting. The panel was created, at the behest of Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., to review compliance with the city’s economic opportunity goals and make recommendations for furthering them, including possibly barring companies that violate rules from doing business with the city.

Four members sat in Monday’s meeting: Angela Dowd-Burton, executive director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; Steven Scott Bradley, chairman of the board of the African American Chamber of Commerce; Judy Hoover, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 47 and Varsovia Fernandez, President and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Pete Matthews, president of District Council 33 is expected to join the committee. He was not present this week.

Hopes are that the committee will provide a forum, through its public hearings, for addressing the longstanding concerns about minority participation in city contracts, and then advise city council on how to proceed.

There are concerns at many levels: reporting, oversight, penalties or lack thereof.

For years, the city, with little verification, relied on companies to report the names of their minority subcontractors, who were then counted in participation goals. That has changed under a new system that allows the Office of Economic Opportunity to track payments verifying that a minority-owned company actually took part in the contract.

However, on many large projects, particularly construction projects, an outside agency is hired to monitor compliance. But the pool of agencies used is so small and so interconnected with contractors, both eager to keep the money flowing, that it creates a conflict of interest, Ali said.

He recommended that the committee urge Council to forbid agencies from overseeing more than one contract with the same developer, require bidding for all oversight contracts and require oversight agencies to disclose conflicts of interest.

Tracking participation can be difficult on construction projects, especially, where the city would like to see its goals met, not just in the money paid out to minority companies but in the hiring of minority employees.

The unions, a traditional bastion of white workers that have actively fought efforts to pry open their ranks.

“We need to look at the unions,” said Michael Jones, the owner of, Colors Painting & Finishing, an interior finishes business. “Everybody needs to be in compliance.”

Several others echoed his thoughts.

“They continue to monopolize things,” said John Macklin, president of the National Association of Minority Contractors. “The union’s want it all and they’ve got so much power in this town, most of our politicians are supported by them.”

Everyone who spoke to the committee also wanted the city to take violations more seriously.

Debarment, a refusal to do business with a company, is the ultimately sanction, one that is rarely used — just once in recent memory.

Just how the city could impose its will on the unions was not addressed during the hearing but speaking after the meeting, Macklin said it would likely take court action.

“It’s going to take some lawsuits,” he said.

Members of the committee promised those who testified that they were dedicated to making sure minority workers and companies were treated fairly.

“We know that we have a way to go,” Dowd-Burton said. “But we do believe we can make things happen.”

The committee will meet quarterly. The next meeting is at 10 a.m. Sept. 12 and the following one at 10 a.m. Dec. 12 in the caucus room at city hall.

 

To comment, contact staff writer Eric Mayes at 215-893-5742 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .