O'Malley assures minority business

Governor says state hasn't kept track of work but will improve

June 09, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Maryland's minority business program is such a shambles that it can't reliably estimate how much business the state does with non-white firms, Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday, promising renewed efforts to steer government work to groups that have suffered from discrimination.

The governor told the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association that although the number of minority- and women-owned firms registered with the state has increased in recent years, it appears that minorities' share of state business might actually have declined.

He said the state's best guess is that firms owned by African-Americans get about 5 percent to 7 percent of state contracts.

"That's where we start. That's not where we end. We are going to do a much better job as we go forward," said O'Malley, who made minority contracting a major focus when he was mayor of Baltimore.

"When I come back to you in a year, I will be able to, as I did as mayor, tell you exactly where we are. We have a lot of work to do. We have done it on a smaller scale [in Baltimore]. Now we have an opportunity to do it on a larger scale for the whole state."

O'Malley spoke at the contractors association's annual meeting yesterday.

He outlined several ways he plans to increase the share of contracts going to minority businesses, including better tracking of statistics, information sharing between state and local governments to spread best practices, lobbying for the establishment of a federal minority business center in Maryland, and working to include minorities in business opportunities that result from the transfer of military personnel to Maryland.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s handling of the Minority Business Enterprise program has been under scrutiny in recent months after reports in The Sun showing that the state fast-tracked the certification of a firm headed by a Republican strategist with close ties to the administration.

An audit by the state Department of Transportation, which manages the MBE program, found other cases in which firms were improperly fast-tracked.

Another Sun report showed problems in the minority contracting program at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Some minorities say that airport managers have set them up to fail by requiring them to make investments and pay rent they can't afford, and a third have left the MBE program in the past few years.

Two have sued the airport, the concessions management company and the state. Other businesses owned by minorities appear not to have had minority managers, including two that the state now says might have been improperly certified for the MBE program to begin with.

Maryland has set goals for minority participation in state contracts since 1978. The state's legacy in spreading business to firms that had been shut out of government work has been at the forefront of public dialogue in the state since the death last week of Parren J. Mitchell, who was Maryland's first black congressman and who successfully pushed for federal minority business programs in the 1970s.

The governor got a strongly positive reaction from the minority contractors, who filled the catering hall at Martin's West in Woodlawn for their breakfast meeting. The group's president, Wayne Frazier, endorsed Ehrlich in 2002 but backed O'Malley last year. Frazier appeared giddy when he took the podium after the governor's speech.

"You heard him say he's coming back next year to give some numbers, man," Frazier said.

"Twenty-five? Thirty-five? Forty-five? Should I go higher?" he said to the governor, attempting to goad him on like an auctioneer. "We're doing The Price is Right."

The state's goal is set by statute at 25 percent.

Ehrlich had the backing of many minority contractors when he took office in 2002, but he lost some support during his term, particularly after musing at a Board of Public Works meeting about when Maryland's minority contracting program would end. Early in his term, he created a program that steers 10 percent of contracts at most state agencies to small businesses, but not necessarily minority businesses.

Ehrlich trumpeted gains in minority contracting during his term, but a 2005 report from his own Office of Minority Affairs conceded that those conclusions were "best guesses based on partial data known to be of questionable accuracy."

Sharon Pinder, who headed the Office of Minority Affairs under Ehrlich, acknowledged that there is room for improvement in data reporting but said that it improved greatly during her tenure. A state audit at the end of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration found that agencies over-reported their numbers by as much as 40 percent, she said.

Minority businesses did get a greater share of state contracts under Ehrlich, but there's still a long way to go, Pinder said.

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