At feeding time on the farm, the biggest pigs shove the smaller ones away from the trough until they've had their fill. If the farmer wants to make sure his small pigs grow to market weight, he must intervene. In the case of San Diego, the public trough will hold $1.2 billion in capital maintenance and construction anticipated over the next four years. Enormous companies are smacking their lips, eyeing the dollars coming down the pike, while small businesses, particularly those owned by women, Latinos, blacks, Asians or other people of color, stand nervously, preparing to take their best shot at the public funds.
At a meeting of the Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission at the Balboa Park Club last week, the debate raged loud and long over how the city will improve its dismal record on giving these businesses a fair chance at the green.
In one corner, sitting quietly, Donnell Johnson watched the argument play out. He runs Johnson Maintenance, a construction cleanup company. When construction is finished, Johnson's crew picks up the last nails, cleans the carpets and polishes up the faucets before the bigwigs move in to their offices. In 13 years, Johnson, who is black, has opened offices in Long Beach and Las Vegas, but he somehow can't win any contracts from the city of San Diego.
'If they won't let black folks clean the toilets, what makes anyone think they'll let us do something bigger?' he said to CityBeat.
Therein lies the source of conflict around the square table: Is the city doing anything to improve its record of distributing funds? Conventional wisdom dictates that public money helps lift struggling populations out of poverty by providing opportunities to get experience and create a track record of good work. Members of the City Council have championed the issue for decades, from the late Councilmembers George Stevens and Charles Lewis to current members Tony Young and Donna Frye.
'It's important that government funds be used for all members of the community,' Frye told CityBeat. 'It's creating opportunities. It is allowing people who might not otherwise be able to participate the ability to participate.'
Even Mayor Jerry Sanders agrees that ensuring equal access to the public trough is a critical role of government, recently telling CityBeat, 'It's very important.'
But Sanders' actions belie his comments. Last summer the Purchasing and Contracting Department became the first subject of Sanders' program of government reorganization. Eleven analysts were pulled from their jobs of making sure that businesses paid in tax dollars do not discriminate based on race or gender and sent to other departments. The current head of the Equal Opportunity Compliance office, Celia Griffin, would not come right out and say that the people removed were the most skilled and experienced, but she told CityBeat that the four analysts remaining had 'a steep learning curve.'
Sanders' proposed budget indicates that four analysts will be restored to the office, but Lance Wade, director of the Purchasing and Contracting Department, told CityBeat that though he expects to hire a couple of people, he does not expect to add any bodies to contract enforcement. In the meeting, he repeatedly said he 'does not have the manpower' to do even the limited enforcement the city used to do. He told the City Council two weeks ago that he planned to stop monitoring 100 percent of contracts and instead switch to spot checking-except for federally funded contracts, which require 100-percent monitoring. Wade also told CityBeat there are no plans to add new programs to fix any perceived problems in spending public dollars, because there's no budget money for new programs, just beefing up old ones.
None of this shocks Rosalind Winstead, a slender, silver-haired black woman who's been trying to get the city to improve opportunity for women- and minority-owned businesses for 15 years. For her, sharing public spending is a personal mission.
'Public contracts are how you get your foot in the door,' she said at the meeting. 'Once you get some experience there, you can get the private dollars. If someone hadn't had to hire me years ago, I would never have gotten the experience I needed to make it in business. I would not be sitting here today.'
She has seen the rise and fall of equal opportunity as a priority for the city, but she has seen precious little improvement. 'We have a climate right now that has been historically problematic for firms owned by people of color and women,' she said.
And it hasn't been good for a long time. Back in 1993, a city-sponsored report called San Diego's distribution of government cash an example of 'passive racism.' In other words, the city may not be racist in how it selects bidders, but it has failed to reach out and bring businesses owned by women and people of color to the table. At the time, San Diego initiated several new programs, but in 1996 California passed Proposition 209, which forbade preferential treatment of groups. Those programs that focused on a specific racial or gender group had to be eliminated.
Still, for years San Diego produced a report twice a year detailing the number of dollars paid to companies owned by women or minority groups. The most recent report, based on 2003 data, indicated that 5 percent of all construction dollars spent by the city went to companies owned by women or minorities. Or phrased another way, 95 percent of all construction dollars went to companies owned by white guys.
To put that in context, the city of Los Angeles' Public Works Department spent 14 percent of its construction dollars contracting with such groups between 1999 and 2004. One of San Diego's redevelopment companies, the Centre City Development Corporation, spent 29 percent in 2004, though that figure dropped to 7 percent in 2005. But when it came to supplies and consulting contracts, CCDC spent more than 30 percent of its resources in 2005 and 2006 on contractors and subcontractors owned by so-called disadvantaged groups.
Of course, the city's poor showing is based on old data. That's because sometime after 2003, the city reports stopped. At the Balboa Park meeting, Wade told the group he had no idea why they stopped. (He was hired in November.)
For years, the reports were delivered to the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee. Prior to being termed out of office in 2002, Councilmember Stevens chaired the committee and made equal access to tax dollars a priority issue. Responsibility for the reports moved to the Natural Resources and Culture Committee, chaired at the time by Councilmember Jim Madaffer. While minutes show the committee did receive at least one report on equal-opportunity contracting, the reports eventually stopped. A former city official with intimate knowledge of the issue said the request to stop doing the reports came from Madaffer, though the committee itself does not appear to have voted on it or discussed it. Madaffer did not respond to CityBeat's requests for comment.
Complicating matters, the city has failed to enforce its own contracts. The Subcontractor Outreach Program (SCOPe), along with mandating outreach by prime contractors, requires a final report on every dollar spent by the company doing city work, including the number of dollars paid to any and all subcontractors. Its requirements, including the report, are written into any construction contract worth more than $250,000. Yet since the program began in 2000, Wade concedes, not a single report has been filed with the equal-opportunity office.
Without these reports, and without the biannual reports the city used to do, no one knows for sure how the city is performing when it comes to sharing the wealth. The former city official told CityBeat that the department still tracks the numbers informally, and the person indicated that construction dollars were still around 5 percent. Griffin, of the Equal Opportunity Compliance office, could not provide any figures to CityBeat. Wade said he'd like to start collecting statistics again, and he plans to issue a report by the end of June.
But right now he and his boss, Assistant Chief Operating Officer Rick Reynolds, are discussing whether to delete the SCOPe program.
'It's expensive for vendors and the city to keep,' he said. 'But mostly from feedback that we get from contractors themselves-they're telling us that it takes a lot of their time and money to go out and do basically this outreach into the community and find the subcontractors.'
Another contractor at the Balboa Park meeting, Wendell Stemley, had a rebuttal.
'I know the city is in financial trouble,' he told CityBeat. 'But when did contractors become part of the city?'
This mere thought of slashing SCOPe infuriates Winstead.
'In the absence of data, what is driving the decision to eliminate the program?' she said.
The way Winstead's sees it, SCOPe is the solution. She points to its success in Los Angeles, where city leaders demand and receive the summary reports and where the minimum threshold is $100,000 instead of $250,000. But no attempt to undermine these programs surprises her anymore. Behind every effort to dilute them she sees the invisible hand of the Associated General Contactors of America, a powerful national lobbying organization with enough San Diego influence to put one of its lobbyists, Bradford Barnum, on the Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission.
Donnell Johnson listened to all this argument and debate somewhat passively. He's a business man, and he wants a bottom line: What will the city do to make it easier for him to actually win a bid? He sees he can win contracts in other cities and even from the San Diego Unified School District, but not from the city of San Diego.
'Small business and minority companies are getting left out of the loop,' he said. 'Period.'