Facing increased pressure to root out contractors who violate the city’s affirmative action goals, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Board of Estimates today halted a $100,000 award to a company that’s been in and out of compliance for years.
The decision to delay approval of the contract to Long Fence Co. for the installation and repair of city fences marks an apparent change of policy by the Rawlings-Blake Administration.
It also represented a slap to city personnel who accept or reject bids based on seemingly arbitrary interpretations of the city’s minority and women’s business compliance rules. The Brew highlighted some specific cases last month.
Rarely does the mayor overrule the recommendations of the Purchasing Department and MWBOO (Minority and Women’s Business Opportunity Office).
But after hearing comments critical of the fencing award from Comptroller Joan Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Rawlings-Blake said she would be “more comfortable hearing from Long Fence” before acting on the matter.
Victory for Jolivet
That remark paved the way for the board’s deferral of the fencing contract for one week.
The decision represents a provisional victory for Arnold Jolivet, managing director of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, who has repeatedly argued that the city’s bureaucracy “freezes out” African-American and women-owned firms.
Today’s decision also follows criticism by the mayor’s own Advisory Council on Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises.
In its April report, the group cited the “infrequency of punishment” of contractors who violate the MBE/WBE ordinance as a deterrent to the growth of minority businesses in Baltimore.
Jolivet represented Charles Sparks, president of Sparks Quality Fence, who had lost out to Long Fence on the original contract – despite being the low bidder – because MWBOO ruled that Sparks was non-compliant with MBE/WBE goals.
History of Non-Compliance
Not cited in board’s records at the time was that Long Fence also failed to meet the city’s minority goals – and had frequently done so over the many years it had a lock on city fencing contracts.
Comptroller Pratt said the company was non-complaint in 2010, compliant in 2011, and non-compliant again in 2012 and this year.
Bill Cronin, Long Fence’s local representative, was not at today’s meeting and did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Acknowledging that Long had a record of “continued failure to meet the MBE/WBE goals for the contract,” Thomas Corey, head of MWBOO, asked the board to approve the contract while requiring the firm to come into MBE/WBE compliance by December.
But Mayor Rawlings-Blake rejected that plan and called on the deferral of the contract so that the board could look into the company’s compliance with affirmative action rules.
Different Treatment Charged
The fencing contract had limited goals to start with. Rather than the 27% MBE and 10% WBE set by city ordinance, Long was required to distribute only 8% of the contract to minorities and 1% to women-owned firms.
Still, the firm failed to reach that goal, offering only 3.75% MBE and 0.75% WBE.
Jolivet charged that the contract had been “tainted” from the start by the city’s failure to allow Sparks, the low bidder, to come into compliance. He showed The Brew a letter that allowed Sparks 10 days to come into MBE/WBE compliance.
Jolivet said the offer was withdrawn by Purchasing “after the people at Long Fence protested,” and the contract was then awarded to the company, based in suburban Washington, last September.
Timothy Krus, head of purchasing, blamed the oddities of the contract on the fact that only two companies bid on the work, even though the metropolitan area has many fencing companies.
Krus at first indicated that any delay in awarding today’s contract could result in hardships to city agencies. In the wake of the mayor’s comments, however, he said his department would be happy to review the contract and resubmit it to the board next Wednesday.