by Samuel Breidbart and Sarah Lavery
When Mayor Bloomberg visited PS 175 on Monday, he came bearing good news: citywide standardized test scores had dramatically improved and minority students were a big part in making that happen. The mayor celebrated with a small Harlem audience and a group of black leaders came to share their praise.
But amid the good feelings it was all too easy to forget that this administration has been far from perfect on the fronts of social justice. Even while test scores are on the rise, two of the mayor’s former darlings, the Department Small Business Services (SBS) and its minority and women business enterprises (M/WBE) initiative, are doing little to close any kind of racial or gender divide, a reality that Wayne Barrett reported on this month in the Voice.
When asked to address these shortcomings, the mayor gave an answer that was hardly descriptive and a bit off-point.
“No one has read that story,” Bloomberg said, referring to the Voice piece as if the best way to debunk an article is to simply and mistakenly call it unpopular. He added: “[SBS] is a department that does a spectacular job. They hire the best people.”
The thing is, he might be the only person to believe that. Many City Councilmembers were not satisfied, and they certainly had read the story.
Speaker Christine Quinn told the Voice that the article raised “a number of serious questions and concerns about the City’s M/WBE contracting,” concerns that Councilman James Sanders attributed to “a failure of will from the top.” And what Bloomberg called “spectacular,” Councilmember and Contracts Committee Chairperson Letitia James said was simply “a sad commentary on this administration.”
Just 24 hours after the mayor’s comments, James presided over a joint-committee hearing to address the failures at hand. At the center of the hearing was Local Law 129, passed in 2005 to encourage more city contracts to be given to certified minority and women business enterprises. The Department of Small Business Services was appointed to oversee the program’s implementation.
The ideas for the law came from a Council-commissioned study that addressed the competitiveness of minorities and women in obtaining City procurement. The study proved that these groups were at a reasonable disadvantage when bidding for prime contracts valued at $1 million or below.
But as the law nears its three-year anniversary, the disadvantage persists. In many cases, the city has not come close to reaching its goals (which are not legally binding like a quota), and the preliminary data for fiscal year 2008 threatens to disappoint once again. Those numbers were enough for Sanders, who authored the original bill, to call what has happened “an unmitigated disaster.”
Tuesday’s hearing was designed to figure out what went wrong, giving Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Robert Walsh and the Bloomberg administration a (last) chance to give some explanation. The councilmembers, community activists and business owners who came to give their own testimony felt they deserved it.
And yet somehow, Walsh never got around to City Hall. The persistently flaky director who stumbled to answer questions about his agency’s programs in a May interview with the Voice never even called in sick. His absence was noted with shaking heads from the audience and comments by both James and Sanders. “One must question [his] commitment,” James said, calling the move “utterly disappointing.”
That left Marla Simpson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, on the floor by herself. She was there for two hours first giving her own account of what has happened with Local Law 129 (a testimony that James felt was deliberately confusing) and then taking an hour and a half of councilmember questions. Beyond the statistics, and really in spite of them, Simpson dished out a few good reasons for the administration’s shortcomings. As she explained, the fact that the study limited the law’s goals specifically to prime contracts under $1 million created problems at the start. That eliminated over 97% of the city’s contracts from consideration, as most procurements are $1 million or more.
On top of that, state law requires that the city award a contract to the lowest responsible bidder for that contract. If the low bidder is not a certified minority- or women-owned business, too bad. By Simpson’s account, it was internal constraints more than anything that held the program back.
So both Local Law 129 and the performance of the Department Small Business Services are far from “spectacular”—to use the mayor’s adjective.
And the gross complacency of Bloomberg’s “spectacular” statement doesn’t sit well with the council and others. The hooky-playing Walsh and his billionaire boss aren’t exactly sending the signals that the political will exists to acknowledge, let alone fix, the problem. The same Bloomberg—who in his 2005 reelection campaign spent millions to advertise to minorities about jobs, even using his newly learned Spanish in commercials—never got around to meeting with Walsh or Simpson to find out how his programs were doing.
That kind of attitude is what left some councilmembers so puzzled. They took in Simpsons arguments, and by Sanders’ assessment seemed to realize that the law might need some logistical tinkering. But Councilman Charles Barron made perhaps the most resonating point. He said that the administration’s failures are not just about a complicated law, but also about the absence of “political will to do the right thing”.
Said Barron: “There ain’t no law telling you that you have to give all the contracts to white men!”