Sunday, February 8, 2009

REBUTTLE: Hampton's record on minority purchasing isn't bad

February 8, 2009

David Squires undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows with his Feb. 5 column, "The business minority report shames Hampton." A close reading of the report reveals evidence for commending the city of Hampton as well.

First, consider the magnitude of the problem. The most dramatic statistic, in Squires' column as well as in earlier Daily Press articles, is that Hampton's population is comprised of 48 percent African- Americans, yet only 1.6 percent of purchases and procurements are awarded to minority-owned companies. The study actually compared the city's procurement award percentage to "the percentage of minority-owned businesses in the relevant market area," which for African-American owned businesses varied from 1 to 5 percent, depending on the type of firm. While some disparity was found, it was not anywhere near the magnitude indicated.

Second, consider the nature of the problem. The primary assumption has been that whatever disparity exists is a result of racial and gender discrimination. When the City Council established the Purchasing and Procurement Oversight Committee in 1989, its mission was to remove legal, financial and other barriers to small business while encouraging "greater, fairness and broader representation of the community." Some 15 years later, the disparity study was explicitly tailored to look for evidence of discrimination to provide a basis for the establishment of "a remedial race- conscious program." This perspective is further reflected by the report's opening 37-page summary of the evolution of affirmative action in procurement.

So over the years the focus has shifted from small businesses in general to minority and women-owned businesses in particular. Yet, only 6 percent of firms surveyed reported that discrimination was a factor in their experience with the procurement process, and those incidents occurred post- award and reflected mostly issues between prime contractors and their subs.

It also must be remembered that during much of the period of the study (FY 1999-2003) the mayor, city manager and key managers in the financial and procurement chain of command were all African-Americans, as was the City Council representative to the Purchasing and Procurement Oversight Committee. As the city leadership considers its response to the findings of the study, those individuals should be able to provide some additional insight into the policies that constrained them from fixing the problem when they were in the seats of power.

But all of the findings did not condemn the city. In fact, the city was commended by the consultants for a variety of actions ranging from the establishment of the Purchasing and Procurement Oversight Committee to extensive outreach efforts to the business community. Furthermore, although some disparities were noted, the percentage of dollars spent with minority businesses was generally higher than the level of spending by the commonwealth of Virginia. In other words, the city outperformed the state.

So, this issue has been formally recognized for at least two decades, and a number of remedies have been put in place. Yet, the situation has proved intractable. When significant effort is spent trying to solve a problem and it won't go away, then it is time to try something different, like shifting the focus back to small businesses in general.

The study offered other states, such as North and South Carolina and Florida, as procurement systems to emulate. As a Dillon Rule state, Virginia's procurement policies drive the city's procedures to a great extent, and there may well be opportunities for improvement at the state level. With that end in mind, good ideas need to be harvested from the more successful jurisdictions and championed as part of the city's legislative agenda.

A close and critical look also needs to be taken at Hampton's internal procurement policies and processes. Indications are that there are still nondiscrimination-related "legal, financial and other barriers" to doing business with the city that have discouraged a broad range of companies, especially small businesses.

I have even more insight to offer but learned at a young age that things given away for free are rarely valued. I look forward to responding to the request for proposal.

Sapp, who was a member of the Hampton City Council from 2004 to 2008, is director of management services at REMSA, a minority woman-owned firm in Hampton. He may be contacted at,0,2321389.story


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