University grilled on minority contracts

O'Malley, Franchot ask why computer, Towson housing projects fall short of target share

March 22, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Members of the Board of Public Works, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, grilled University System of Maryland officials yesterday, asking why more minority- and women-owned firms were not receiving larger portions of state contracts.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of three board members, asked university representatives why two state contracts were offered to companies agreeing to award only 10 percent of their work to minority firms, when the state's goal is 25 percent.

The projects included a $40 million contract for university-wide computer software and a nearly $37 million contract for a Baltimore firm to build new campus housing at Towson University.

When O'Malley asked why the software firm did not secure more minority participation, university officials responded that few firms have expertise in the software's technology.

"My question is how do we get from where we are to where we want to be?" Franchot asked, with frustration in his voice. "I guarantee there are minority businesses out there who are knowledgeable about this. The question is not whether it's hard, but whether it's doable."

Franchot suggested delaying the contract for Towson University's housing project until the construction firm agreed in writing to increase its minority participation to 25 percent.

But James P. Sheehan, the university's vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer, stressed that the project is on a tight schedule.

"My desperation is due to the fact that this is budgeted on a very tight time frame," he said. "We are hopeful that we can have beds available by August 2008."

Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, who headed O'Malley's transition team examining the minority business program, said officials at the construction firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, told him that they would include more minority firms.

O'Malley said the board would not delay the contract, as long as it received a commitment in writing from Whiting-Turner.

Frazier told the board that state agencies must do better.

"The minimum is 25 percent. It's not a goal, it's a commitment," he said. "Governor, we want to help you, because obviously your agencies are not getting the message."

Discussion of expanding the state's Minority Business Enterprise program dominated yesterday's meeting of the Board of Public Works, which also includes Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

In O'Malley's first Board of Public Works meeting in January, he quizzed officials about the level of minority business participation in state contracts.

Franchot said the board is committed to better tracking of the state's minority business program.

"Contracts that don't meet the MBE goal are going to be pulled aside," he said. "We're going to ask the tough questions."

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