For two years, Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute, lobbied the mayor’s office for a hearing to evaluate the gross underrepresentation of minority and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs) in the city’s procurement budget.
And, said Lewis, the City failed to move, despite evidence from the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services that only 5.3 percent of the City’s $13.8 billion procurement budget was spent with M/WBEs. In fall 2014, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer published “Making the Grade,” a report assessing how well New York City government is procuring goods and services with M/WBEs. The report found that more than two-thirds of City agencies earned “D”s or “F”s, including the comptroller’s office, which earned a ‘D.’ And sadly, the 2015 report showed little improvement.
Well, on Monday, Lewis, along City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who is chair of City Contracts, and around a dozen elected officials and other women and minority businesses advocates, announced on the steps of City Hall that they finally received the greenlight to hold a hearing to address the problem:
“This administration is incompetent and immoral! Yes, I said it! We had to push and push and pull in order to get this hearing today,” said Lewis. “It’s insulting! And what we want to say is ‘Can you hear us now?’ Because enough is enough is enough!”
Lewis also was joined by Women’s Issues Chair Laurie A. Cumbo, Small Business Chair Robert E. Cornegy, Jr., Women’s Caucus Co-Chair Elizabeth Crowley, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Public Advocate Tish James, City Councilmember Mark Levine, Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte and others, all of whom had been outspoken advocates in their districts for expanding opportunities for M/WBEs and holding the City and those doing business with the City accountable for reaching M/WBE goals.
“This has got to be one of the single most important issues of our time in the City of New York,” said Councilmember Cumbo. “What we have here is a city that is over 65 percent people of color, yet [M/WBEs] comprise less than five percent of the contracts with the City of New York.
“And when you break it down even further blacks and Latinos comprise only 1 percent [of those contracts]. So in essence, we are taking taxes from 65 percent of the people and giving 95 percent of that to white, male-owned businesses.”
Cumbo pointed out how other cities with far less diverse populations than New York are faring much better: For example, according to a Huffington Post article, Ohio awarded 19.4 percent of its state contracts to MWBE’s, exceeding their goal of 15 percent. In 2010, in San Antonio, Texas, they put new laws in place to increase their M/WBE contract awards, resulting in an increase from 16 percent to 23 percent.
“We cannot be behind the times in a city as diverse as this,” said Cumbo. “It is not only an embarrassment how we have kept communities of color in the shadows in not allowing them to realize their full potential, it is also an issue that is going to take serious people at the table who want to turn this around.”
Councilmember Cornegy added, “It’s not a side issue and it’s not a marginal issue; when we fight for fairness and equal access, we are really fighting for all New Yorkers. These businesses are key job providers for residents and they support other small businesses to keep dollars circulating in our community.”
Comptroller Stringer said his annual report “Making the Grade” was not about playing “gotcha” with agencies; he named diversity as a fundamental principle of economic development and simply good business for the city.
“It will act as a central tool in our battle against income inequality,” Stringer said. “We must give companies that are owned by African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Women a chance to compete for their fair share of the $14 billion spent.”
And it is not only city agencies where diversity in contract hiring has become an issue, Stringer added, but also in the private sector.
“Corporate boards finally are understanding that if they do not diversify, they’re not going to be strong companies,” said Stringer. “Too many of our boards are male, pale and stale. We believe this hearing is one of the most important hearings to conclude this year.”
Councilmember Crowley will preside over the joint oversight hearing, which was scheduled to take place immediately following the press conference and would present testimony from small business minority contractors, as well as put forth a series of eight bills sponsored separately by Rosenthal, Cumbo, Crowley and James. The hearing aims to increase M/WBE participation in economic development projects, as well as appoint a point person whose sole job would be to monitor agencies’ track record in minority contracting while also hold them accountable.
And “I’m not talking about just being held accountable,” said Lewis. “I’m talking about real punishment. Any law has got to have some teeth. Because we’re not leaving; we are not going to quit!”