For the past four years, a $580,000 study of race and gender disparities in the awarding of contracts by Augusta-Richmond County has been sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
In 2009, this disparity study discovered that, while 35 percent of the Augusta market was made up of women- and minority-owned businesses, these businesses received less than 7 percent of the government contracts.
Small Business Advocate Hartley Gibbons recently went before the Augusta Commission to ask that the board move forward and “take action” regarding the findings in the study.
It was determined that the study was needed back in 2007 after a lawsuit found that Augusta’s existing disadvantaged business program had never been updated. A federal court later ordered that the city could no longer use a bidder’s minority status as criteria in awarding city contracts.
However, the court did allow the city government to collect evidence to be used in another, future disparity study.
If another study is completed — with an estimated price tag of an additional $600,000—Augusta could use that study to request the court’s ban against race- or gender-based criteria be lifted.
Gibbons insisted the city needs to move forward with a plan that would lift the court order. Otherwise, the entire community will ultimately suffer, he said.
“It’s a matter of pay me now or pay me later,” Gibbons said.
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams thanked Gibbons for his passion in demanding that the city take some action regarding the findings in the disparity study.
“I hear you say, we need to get serious. I’ve been saying that this entire year,” Williams said. “We act as if this is going to go away. It’s not. It’s going to stay in our face.”
Williams said the commission needs to come up with a solid plan to address the disparity study’s findings and discuss the city’s next move regarding the court order.
“We need to go ahead and get this thing done so we can be about the business of this government and not have one group left out, whether it’s women, minorities or anybody else,” Williams said. “We talk about local participation, too. I believe the money should be spent right here in Augusta. So, I’m ready to move on this.”
The commission asked General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Director Yvonne Gentry to meet with Colette Holt, a nationally recognized expert in designing and implementing legally defensible affirmative action programs.
Holt was one of the experts who helped develop the city’s first disparity study.
MacKenzie said he had no problem at all meeting with Holt, but he did have concerns about procuring a new disparity study and developing a new minority business program.
“Something could be done now,” MacKenzie said. “But there is also a need to begin the process to implement a new disparity study, otherwise the (minority business) program could be challenged (in court) on the same basis that the original program was challenged on.”
Williams said he supported MacKenzie and Gentry meeting with Holt, but he was also concerned that the commission had no idea how much such advice about a plan would cost the city.
“I think the most important thing is to have a telephone conference (with Holt) to give us a plan forward,” Gentry said.
Williams said he could not believe his ears.
“If we haven’t made a phone call as of now, that really bothers me,” Williams said, pointing out that the disparity study was completed in 2009. “We should have already made a phone call. In fact, I made a phone call to her a while back. I talked to her when she was in her car and she was in Texas or California or somewhere. So I’m surprised we haven’t already made a phone call to know what she would do or not do or give us a path to move forward.”
Gentry said she has had numerous conversations with Holt, but not under the direction of the commission to move forward with developing a possible “race conscience” program.
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith immediately had concerns with Gentry’s description of the program.
“Ms. Gentry, I heard something that made my stomach upset just a minute ago,” Smith said. “You said we were going to abandon a race-neutral stance and take a race-preference stance. Is that what you said?”
Gentry quickly corrected the commissioner.
“No, sir. We currently have a race-neutral program in place that is specifically for local participation,” she said. “The disparity study recommended having such a program in place. However, to correct the inefficiencies identified in the study, we need to also develop a race-conscience program where we are placing a percentage goal and actually focusing on minority and women.”
Without having recent data showing whether those disparities still exist, Smith said he was not comfortable discussing the development of such a program.
“You are asking us to do something but we don’t know if the problem still exists because the information that we have is four or five years old,” Smith said. “So, our current practices for procurement may have rectified some of this from the past disparity study. We don’t know that.”
We don’t know if the problem still exists because the information that we have is four or five years old,” said Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith
Gentry assured the commissioners that the issues have not been rectified.
“How do we know that?” Smith asked. “How would we know that without a new disparity study?”
One of her main focuses for the past several years has been to collect the necessary information, Gentry said.
“That is what we’ve been doing since 2008, is collecting the data,” she said. “We don’t have all the data. They didn’t have all the data when they did the (2009) study.”
Smith said he was concerned about the city’s path forward regarding a race-conscience program.
“I’m really uncomfortable with the fact that some people are wanting us to do something in the next two months and we have not collected the information that is going to support us having a race-bias program,” Smith said. “But you are asking us to do something in 60 days that we don’t have the information that would stand up to strict (court) scrutiny.”
Gentry said she wasn’t requesting that of the commission.
“Some members of this body are,” Smith said, looking around at his fellow commissioners.
The commission voted 9-0, with Commissioner Alvin Mason absent, to allow MacKenzie and Gentry to have a conference call with Holt to discuss a path forward.