State board delays action on new study of minority business

Contractors question fairness of bidding, say one company was favored

October 07, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Amid protests from minority contractors and charges of an unfair bidding process, the Board of Public Works delayed action yesterday on a study to determine whether the state gives enough business to minority businesses.

Members of the committee that selected National Economic Research Associates to perform the $1.3 million study said they feared that a delay could jeopardize the state's minority business-enterprise program.

But the board decided to wait until the Maryland Board of Contract Appeals rules on a protest by Mason Tillman Associates, a business owned by black women, which placed second in the bidding.

Eleanor Mason Ramsey, the president of Oakland, Calif.-based Mason Tillman, told the board yesterday that she thinks the state changed its criteria for evaluating proposals after the bids were turned in and that NERA, which has conducted similar studies for the state, was given unfair preference.

Hearing on Oct. 26

A hearing is set for Oct. 26 before the contract appeals board.

Ramsey's comments appeared to strike a chord with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who repeatedly said he thought the committee handling the bid wanted to give the job to NERA.

Schaefer, who spent a large part of the meeting grilling state agency officials about relatively small expenditures, also criticized the committee's decision not to penalize NERA for bidding 10 percent more than Mason Tillman.

"What's the use in having competitive bidding?" Schaefer said.

William Kahn, a member of the selection committee, defended the decision, saying the panel gave preference to the technical specifications of the bids over their costs because of the complexity of the issue and the strict standards the courts set for minority business programs.

Kahn said the panel had concerns about Mason Tillman's methodology and is confident in NERA's abilities.

The study, which compares the availability of minority- and female-owned businesses willing and able to do state work with the state's use of such contractors, is a legal precursor to the creation of a program setting goals for a minority business program.

State's program

Maryland's program, which sets participation goals for minority businesses on state contracts, is to expire in 2006. Continuing it without a new study to back it up would create a significant risk of a lawsuit against the state, Kahn said, and further delay would preclude having a study done in time.

"You could do it in less than 13 months, but then you'd have a crummy study," he said.

Ramsey said her company could do the study in 10 months.

A lawyer for NERA and members of the selection committee also disputed criticism by Mason Tillman and the Maryland Washington Minority Contractors Association about NERA's role in Chicago's minority business program, which was shut down by a federal court last year for failing to narrowly target past discrimination.

In Chicago

E. Sanderson Hoe, a lawyer representing NERA, said the company did not design Chicago's program but was hired after the fact to study conditions in the city and prove a need for minority preferences.

He, Kahn and Paul Smith, a statistics professor at the University of Maryland who also served on the committee, said the recognition by the federal judge in his decision that discrimination continues in Chicago validates NERA's study.

The judge's conclusion that Chicago's efforts didn't precisely enough target that discrimination is the fault of the program, not of NERA's work, they said.

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