State choice for $1.3 million study is criticized

Minority group says Md. bypassed black-run firm

October 06, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Minority contractors are protesting the state's choice of a firm to study Maryland's use of minority- and women-owned businesses, saying it bypassed a well-qualified and cheaper company that is owned by a black woman.

The contractors further criticized the state's choice of National Economic Research Associates Inc. of White Plains, N.Y., saying that company played a key role in designing Chicago's minority business enterprise program, which was struck down last year by a federal judge who said it was not properly tailored to remedy past discrimination.

The $1.3 million state contract is scheduled for a vote by the Board of Public Works today.

"I'm going to remind the governor that he ran on a platform for reform and minority business, and I will beg him to reconsider this and send a clear message to minorities that, in selecting a minority firm over a majority firm, his message of inclusion is his commitment," said Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association.

One of the losing bidders, Mason Tillman & Associates of Oakland, Calif., which is owned by a black woman, protested the state's bid decision with the Maryland State Board of Contract Appeals. A hearing on the challenge is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Philip Andrews, an attorney representing Mason Tillman, said he and company representatives will lobby the Board of Public Works on the issue today. He said the company alleges that Maryland acted on the erroneous belief that NERA's work in Chicago was upheld by the courts, and that the state improperly changed bid criteria after the proposals were submitted.

"If you look at the case, it's very clear that the judge speaks to their work and says the city of Chicago must adjust its program," said Mason Tillman President Eleanor Mason Ramsey.

The Department of Transportation, which runs the state's Minority Business Enterprise program, chose the company based on a "technical evaluation" of the firms bidding for the job rather than on the vendors' bid prices. In its evaluation, NERA was ranked first technically but third of four bidders in price. Mason Tillman was second in both price and technical rank.

Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said the agency would not comment on the contract until it makes its presentation to the board today.

NERA representatives did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Frazier said NERA's role in creating Chicago's program is "most definitely" a worry for his members. He said he wants to see an aggressive program, but one that meets legal muster.

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover said NERA did the same type of study for Illinois that Maryland is now conducting. Illinois' study is now being challenged in federal court, he said. In documentation to the Board of Public Works, Maryland's transportation department said one factor in its decision to award the contract to NERA was its successful completion of previous minority business studies for the state, most recently in 2000-2001.

Brian Holmes, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association, said his members "were not thrilled with [NERA's] methodology" in the earlier study. He said he doesn't believe the company properly estimated the number of minority firms willing and able to work on state contracts, which saddled Maryland's majority firms with unrealistic goals.

"I would really like to see the [minority business] program work, but I think there's a lot more groundwork that needs to be done before that's going to happen," Holmes said.

Mason Tillman has worked on two studies in Maryland, one in Montgomery County in 2001 and one under way in Baltimore County. The company says that it has completed more than 70 disparity studies for states, counties and cities, including, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington and Missouri, and that none have been challenged in court.

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