James Hall of the Milwaukee-based Hall Legal Team told St. Paul City Council members they are unusual, perhaps unique, among cities for voluntarily seeking an audit of how they're doing toward their goal of hiring more women-and-minority owned businesses. And Hall said the audit found several ways in which the city is working to achieve that goal.
"Those efforts are to be commended," he said. "However, as a matter of perspective, we note that notwithstanding those efforts, the level of participation of women and minority owned contractors is wanting." Hall illustrated that assertion with these data: St. Paul and its Housing and Redevelopment Authority issued $220 million worth of contracts last year. Less than 7 percent, Hall said, went to women or minority owned businesses.
Rather than defend St. Paul's track record, the city officials who received Hall's report focused on their readiness to embrace the recommendations in the audit. Immediately after Hall's presentation, Mayor Chris Coleman said he'd begun sorting through the multitude of suggestions.
“The level of participation of women and minority owned contractors is wanting.”James Hall of the Milwaukee-based Hall Legal Team
"But the one thing that I think is very, very crystal clear is that one of the challenges we've had is that no one has taken ownership of this," he said. "No one person has been clearly in charge of making sure that we are meeting our contracting goals. No one person is being held accountable for that." Coleman announced he's put city attorney John Choi in charge of developing a report on how to implement the recommendations contained in the audit.
In addition to consolidating supervision of contract goals, the audit suggests St. Paul have more specific consequences for meeting or not meeting those goals. Bill Lynch, a partner in the Hall Legal Team, said those could include withholding some payments from vendors who do not achieve the goals and giving hiring preference to those who have achieved the goals in the past.
Lynch said the audit found that monitoring and enforcement of contract agreements need improvement.
"We believe it's very important to the credibility of the program and to the acceptance of the program by the people who are affected by it, to be sure that there's follow-through to make sure that commitments that are made initially actually happen," he said.
For years, minority-owned contractors, the NAACP, religious groups, and others have been criticizing St. Paul for falling short in providing equal access to city contracts. Four years ago the pressure prompted the city to form a task force, the Equal Access Working Group.
Cliff Boyd serves on that group and leads the state chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. Even though the audit shows meager progress toward diversifying St. Paul's contractors, Boyd told the city council its release was a happy occasion for him because it indicates the city is taking the issue more seriously.
"There's a lot of good things in this report that we found," he said. "So now, where the rubber hits the road is where and how the implementation will get done. Along with the implementation, I think we need to put in place some timelines so we can judge ourselves as we go down the path."
City attorney Choi said he expects his report on how to implement the audit's recommendations should be complete within ninety days. The city paid for the audit through grants provided by the St. Paul and Bremer Foundations.