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St. Paul plan aims to increase minority contracts

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The debate over minority contracting has long raged in St. Paul. Five years ago, it came to a head when social-justice groups and black community leaders began pressuring city hall to examine how short it was falling of its own equal-access goals.

The biggest change in the city's plan is the creation of a new department that would monitor contract compliance. That may sound like a bureaucratic answer to the problem. But many longtime city critics praised what they're calling an important first step toward spreading the wealth. St. Paul NAACP's Nathaniel Khaliq was one of them.

"This may not be a perfect plan, but it is a plan," said Khaliq. "And it's a plan that was initiated from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. And we feel that if many of us who are here today continue to be engaged in this process and see it through, it will bear the fruit that all of us want to see."

The new Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity will consolidate various contracting services. It will also include offices that handle civil rights enforcement and workforce development.

"This may not be a perfect plan, but it is a plan."

A recent audit showed that in 2006, the city's housing and redevelopment arm awarded $220 million in contracts. Fewer than seven percent went to businesses owned by women and people of color.

Mayor Chris Coleman said a search will begin soon for a director to head the new department. The director would be appointed by the mayor and vetted through a community selection process. 

"I think the audit showed while there was no ill intent, there was a lack of coordination that was really impeding our ability to do everything we needed to do," Coleman said. "There were no clear lines of accountability, there was no one person that could be held accountable or to the council or to the community."

Clifton Boyd Jr. serves on a task force charged with studying the issue. He said five years of community meetings and working with City Council members has finally paid off.

Boyd runs his own electrical wholesale company and has done business with the city, but he said he knows of other minority-owned businesses who are locked out of the process. He said the new plan will better track general contractors to see if they're complying with minority-hiring goals.

"Let's say company A did this project, they didn't meet their goals, but still they were getting the next job down the road. So now there's going to be a scorecard. Company A, you didn't meet your goal, so you may not be considered for this next job," said Boyd.

But the work is far from over. Boyd said the new plan still has its share of skeptics. But now that there's a plan, he said he'll be watching closely to make sure it works.