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Do women and people of color get a fair share of government contracts?

Durham is a diverse city where black residents account for 37 percent of the population and people of Hispanic origin represent 13 percent. But officials are concerned the groups do not get a similar share of city contracts.

“I continue to be floored by how many of the businesses we’re working with have zero people of color,” Councilmember DeDreana Freeman said at a City Council meeting last week. “It’s really disturbing.”

The Council signed off on five deals with contractors that will cost almost $2.2 million. Only two of those deals met goals for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses. For the other three projects, goals for minority and women-owned business participation were not set.

City officials say they’ve been aware of the challenge for years. In 2013, the city commissioned a study to analyze the disparity in government contracting practices.

The study found that over a five-year period, Durham spent $206.1 million, but only $5.5 million — or less than 3 percent — was awarded to minority and women-owned firms.

The city established goals for minority and women business participation using the findings of the study. Construction contractors, for instance, should include minority-owned businesses in 11 percent and women-owned businesses in 7 percent of a project.

The Equal Business Opportunity Program requires contractors to “make good faith efforts” to meet these targets. However, some contracts are not assigned goals because there are no minority or women-owned firms available.

“If [contractors] can’t meet the goals … they have to say why,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “And the reason usually is there are no women or minority-owned businesses that have the ability to do that certain skill.”

At the meeting, Schewel said that the city can focus on developing minority and women businesses so that they become eligible to win government contracts.

“That is a bigger societal problem we’ve got to solve in our education system,” Schewel said. “We also need to be thinking as a city about how we’re going to help some of our folks who do have technical skills but don’t have business experience.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested postponing the scheduled vote to appoint twelve people to the newly established Racial Equity Task Force. His reasoning was that only one of the twelve appointees is an African-American man.

“For a racial equity task force in a southern American city where nine African-American males applied — for it to be just one African-American male on the task force, I think optically, is a shortcoming on our part.”

Freeman and Councilmember Vernetta Alston echoed the concerns.

Now, the appointments will be reconsidered at the Council’s Sept. 20 work session.

Middleton ended his remarks by reminding his fellow councilmembers that until the task force is functional, people of color in Durham still have a voice.

“There is a working group in our city that should be mindful of racial equity issues: us.”