In August 2007, Mayor Jerry Sanders stood before the City Council and apologized. He was introducing Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone, and he knew Goldstone had some ugly news to deliver about how the city contracted services, and he felt he ought to kick things off with a candid admission that he knew how bad things were.
Goldstone's presentation that day would focus on which private contractors get to do city work, including everything from road repair and keeping photocopiers supplied with paper to conducting financial analyses. He would describe how, between June 2006 and June 2007, $44 million of the city's $46 million in construction contracts had gone to businesses owned by white men. He went on to disclose similarly bad ratios for city consulting contracts and for contracts that supply goods to city repair yards and offices. No one was proud of the data, but there was hope that things would change.
But, 14 months later, has it?
“The mayor said he was sorry, but I see no evidence whatever of that,” said Roz Winstead, an activist who has been fighting San Diego government on this issue for 15 years.
Sanders did not appear at the City Council meeting last week when equal-opportunity contracting appeared on the agenda—nor did Goldstone. Instead, director of administration Debra Fischle-Faulk and equal opportunity contracting program manager Beryl Rayford had to deliver the bad news. Between June 2007 and March 2008, the city spent $116 million on construction projects. Of that, $113 million went to companies owned by men. Fischle-Faulk also said $113 million went to companies owned by white people. Nearly $2 million went to Latino-owned companies, and $2 million went to companies that declined to state ethnicity. Precisely $0 million went to companies owned by African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos or Native Americans. In 2007 and again in 2008, the stat was the same—96 percent of construction contracts went to white people.
“Nothing much has changed,” intoned City Councilmember Donna Frye at the meeting. “Nothing seems to change.”
San Diego has been spinning its wheels trying to fix the problem for 15 years, ever since a 1993 report called San Diego's contracting practices “passively racist.” No one interviewed for this story was willing to use the “R” word to describe the city's practices, but Frye worked around it.
“I mean, what are you going to call it? The facts are the facts,” she said. “Is it an accident?”
The city has, over the years, made some half-hearted efforts to fix the problem, from hiring quotas eventually struck down by the courts to mandated outreach programs for prime contractors. All have suffered from underfunding and understaffing. The Equal Opportunity Contracting program staff of six analysts has struggled to monitor and enforce fair-wage and equal-opportunity laws on the hundreds of contracts put out by the city every year. In the last 18 months, the program has been led by four different people, including Rayford, none of whom have a background in contracting or equal-opportunity issues (Rayford has been a community liaison). Five new analysts have been budgeted for the department, but they have not been hired.
Knowing this history and hearing the new numbers seemed to frustrate Frye and City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Tony Young, the council's only black member. Their threats were veiled, but at the meeting Young and Frye hinted that they'd start scrutinizing all contracts that come before the City Council to see if they're reaching out to minority- and women-owned businesses, and possibly they wouldn't vote for them. It's not the sort of threat either can make lightly, as there are major political risks involved.
“So, we're being placed in a situation where, do we make sure we have equal opportunity or do we have functioning sewer pipes?” Frye said in an interview. “I shouldn't have to be placed in the situation to make that choice.”
Councilmember Ben Hueso, the panel's only Latino, spent little time discussing issues of race or gender, preferring instead to focus on how the city can help small businesses win city contracts. He argued this would help most minority- and women-owned businesses, which tend to be small.
The mayor urges patience.
“We are making the effort,” said Sanders spokesperson Rachel Laing. ”This system was not put in disarray overnight. It's not going to be fixed overnight.”
Laing pointed out that Sanders hired a consultant to propose solutions to the city's troubled contracting practices, that the consultant had turned in his report and that the mayor is already implementing some of its recommendations. She said EOC has been getting all the paperwork together to fill the five new positions, and they hope to have candidates interviewed within the next three weeks. She said Rayford has formed a team to go back through old contracts to compile data back to 2003 on who was getting how much money for what. The city's considering purchasing software that would track all contracts and keep a database of viable subcontractors. These businesses would receive an e-mail whenever a new contract is available for bid or whenever a prime contractor is looking for a subcontractor with special expertise.
Winstead wonders why some of the activities Laing told CityBeat about weren't brought up at last week's City Council meeting, which she attended. She noted that the consultant turned in his recommendations in Feburary, and she wondered why it's taking the mayor so long to get around to them.
After 15 years, her skepticism runs deep.
“They're always talking about what they're going to do,” she said. “I'll believe it when I see it.”