Will minority- and women-owned firms ever get a fair shake in the awarding of contracts issued by local municipal governments?
While some will argue that the question is loaded and that it brushes away any measure of progress, there is a fresh reason why it is being bandied about in various quarters of Memphis.
In a protest letter recently sent to several county officials, including Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., three locally owned African-American firms are claiming foul. Their owners and operators say the county sidestepped them to hire a firm that did not meet at least two of the priority minimum qualifications supposedly demanded by the county in a recent contract bid. They note that Caissa Public Strategy – the firm that secured the contract – happened to be white-owned.
Trust Marketing, a well-respected local marketing firm, partnered with JPA Inc. in seeking the contract and explained its case in a press release.
A third African-American-owned firm, Small Planet Works, has joined the protest. The trio of businesses claim the county ignored the basic rules listed for the bid. It's also alleged that the Trust/JPA team was not provided a proper window to present its bid.
The contract in question is for a public relations job to inform minority, low-income and underserved communities about the Mid South Greenprint & Sustainability Plan. The plan involves bringing about more use of natural spaces. Shelby County was awarded a $2.6 million HUD grant that called for the inclusion of Crittenden and Fayette counties in Arkansas, and Mississippi's Desoto County.
The plan's website (www.sustainableshelby.com/greenprint) includes a reference to increasing use of public transportation. Interestingly, it is the need for engaging the public in better use of environmental infrastructure that is the key to the contract controversy.
The issue of fair consideration for African-American firms is drawing increased interest in Greater Memphis as Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools grind on toward a fully operational Unified School District. Many are wondering whether safeguards that MCS has employed to involve such firms in contract opportunities will survive and make the transition.
Trust Marketing's media release says bias is not the issue in the contract dispute and that fair adherence to the rules is the bottomline.
"The protest does not allege racial bias. Both protests charge that Caissa did not meet at least two (2) of the minimum requirements for proposers in the county's Request for Proposal. The RFP calls for seven (7) years organization and staff experience in community engagement with low-income, minority and rural communities in the Mid-South. Small Planet Works has twelve (12) years experience in this area, JPA has eighteen (18) years experience and TRUST Marketing, Inc., which is partnered with both firms, has over twenty (20) years specializing in community engagement."
Small Planet Works President Janice Banks outlines the firm's position in the media release.
"It's simple math. Item #1 of the county's RFP under Minimum Proposer Requirements states that all firms must have at least seven (7) years experience in the work described in the RFP. Caissa Public Strategy was only established two years ago in 2010, plus the work described in the RFP is absolutely not what they do. So how were they selected if they don't meet the criteria of the RFPs? That is our question to Shelby County and it has yet to be answered."
Caissa's Managing Director Paige Walkup acknowledges that the firm has only been in business "a little more than two years."
"It was accumulated experience that the RFP asked for, not experience specific to the firm," Walkup told The New Tri-State Defender.
"Brian Stevens (CEO) and I formed this business from his legal practice, which had been established for more than 12 years. My particular experience has been in dealing with outreach to low- to moderate-income communities, particularly informing minority populations on affordable housing and healthcare issues.
"(The) accumulated experience of our staff in doing this type of work is more than 100 years, so I feel we won the contract on merit and the review committee's decision reflects that."
Caissa has eight core employees, none African American, with the contacts needed to expand as needed, said Walkup.
For the Greenprint plan, Walkup says their key African-American partner is Paul Morris, whose local background she says is impeccable.
"He has more than 25 years in transportation planning, Title VI work and community outreach. The contract is really focused on engaging minorities in multiple sectors – African American, handicapped, bi-lingual, disabled people – and making sure we can communicate to all those communities. We're done this for clients with similar needs in several cities throughout the nation," says Walkup.
"Here in Memphis we're working with Methodist Hospital in building awareness, particularly with faith-based populations, on the new Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and the programs that will be available there, and we have also worked with the Riverfront Development Corporation focusing on board development and building new community participation."
Not adhering to the outlined rule of experience was just part of the problem, said John Jackson, principal of protesting firm JPA.
"JPA, along with TRUST Marketing, has about 40 years of combined experience in this area and in that time we've responded to literally hundreds of RFPs for work all across this country. This RFP process was irreparably flawed," he said.
"The team of TRUST Marketing & JPA was not afforded the same amount of time to prepare for the presentation as the other two teams. One of the selection committee members for this project did not see or hear our presentation. The JPA/TRUST proposal was originally mistakenly disqualified for not having Shelby County Equal Opportunity Compliance (EOC) numbers."
Jackson said the numbers were always included in the proposal.
"Shelby County admitted they overlooked them, but our proposal was not considered in the initial meeting by the selection committee. Caissa's selection is grossly unfair and reeks of political patronage."
For now, the last word goes to Office of Sustainability Administrator Paul Young.
"I'm familiar with the protest, but I think it was a fair selection. I served on the review committee and reviewed the proposals. The firm that was recommended did meet the qualifications," Young said.
"What made the winning proposer stand out was their significantly lower costs plus an additional recommendation for one-on-one focus groups, which we really thought was very integral in engaging the community. They all did a good job, but those two things stood out."
Young, who is African American, says he understands the sensitivity of the situation, noting that he does – and will always – stay within legal guidelines when considering proposals.
"I love to see African-American and other minority firms succeed and I understand the significance of it, but I'm not assessing the project based on the complexion of the owners of the company," he said.
"We can't show preferential treatment in the due process of considering contracts within Shelby County government. It is not part of our process. We want to see contracts reflect the community that we are serving, but I have to separate my feelings from the recommendations and the law.
"I can assure you there were no inconsistencies in the awarding of the contract."