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Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / The Chattanooga City Hall is seen downtown on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019.

Chattanooga government is looking to boost diversity in its use of contracted vendors after a study presented to the City Council this past summer showed that only 10.78% of city-awarded contracts over five years ending in fiscal 2018 went to minority- and women-owned companies.

The universe of "eligible" businesses that are women-owned or minority-owned in our local region is 22%, and minorities make up 38% of Chattanooga's population, according to Karen McReynolds, director of the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs.

The $175,000 disparity study, performed by Atlanta-based Griffin & Strong, a law and public policy firm specializing in disparity research and contract compliance, assessed the city's contract spending in construction, architecture and engineering, professional services, other services and goods.

The research found "statistically significant under-utilization of minority and female owned firms."

Well, yes. We'd say so. The numbers mean half of the local minority and women businesses are being left out. It is overly kind, actually, to only label that gross disparity as "statistically significant."

But let's give credit where credit is due.

Kudos to Chattanooga for seeking, obtaining and publicizing its contractor and vendor disparity study. Too many communities just prefer not to know.

And things have improved. In 2013, the same year Andy Berke was elected mayor in March, city officials announced in December a change to the city's bid process, hoping to improve what was then estimated at 2% of city contracts awarded to minorities and women. A year later, then-Office of Multicultural Affairs director James McKissic told the Times Free Press the number had grown to 7.2% but still was too low.

Now let us also pose a question where a critique is due.

Chattanooga city government — especially in the past eight years under Berke — is likely the most progressive local government operation in all of Tennessee. So why in the world is this still a problem? And here of all places?

Why is it that our very progressive city government still has not managed, with all of its conversation about performance-based "budgeting for outcomes," to award contracts fairly and equally to minority- and women-owned companies?

And let's pose one more uncomfortable question to which we all likely know the answer: How much worse might our larger community's measure of fairness and unfairness look if similarly unbiased, outside studies were performed in Hamilton County, surrounding counties and the states of Tennessee and Georgia?

Yikes!

For now, let's unpack the bad news about our own city's lack of diversity and inclusiveness toward the region's minority business world.

On Tuesday, the council heard a new response plan from city Deputy Administrator Tony Sammons and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Sammons said the goal is to create more operational changes than one-time fixes, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs has broken its recommendations into short-, mid- and long-range "strategic goals."

In the short term, they recommend "renaming" the current Supplier Diversity Initiative to be called Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises to "become more inclusionary" and provide a "strength-based description." Come on, folks. A name change is just a name change.

Another chunk of "to dos" on the short-term (three to six months) list include proposing a council resolution to acknowledge the findings of the disparity study, presenting a draft implementation plan, enhancing the city's reciprocal certification process by helping vendors get third-party certifications, providing training on doing business with the city and improving vendor outreach.

What? What has the "Supplier Diversity Initiative" and the Office of Multicultural Affairs been doing for the past 14 years since the office was created in 2006.

In the mid term, (six months to a year) the city will focus on attracting new bids from diverse vendors, by utilizing contract forecasting to identify and publish expiring blanket contracts and hosting events to alert minority- and women-owned businesses of upcoming opportunities.

The city also will begin using language in prime contractor agreements to ensure prompt payment of subcontractors and will use data to monitor spending, certifications and verification, as well as making bidder data more accessible

Again, we ask: Why is this just now happening?

And in the long term — a year or more — the city will unbundle large existing contracts to allow small businesses more opportunities to take on smaller projects, track utilization of subcontractors and set subcontracting goals to encourage the use of a diversity of subcontractors.

Over time, the city also is urged to hire an equity officer and a contract compliance officer, provide compliance training for purchasing personnel, work to develop small businesses and explore initiatives to help women- and minority-owned companies to pursue non-city contracts.

You think? You think we might put someone specifically in charge of this? In 2020 we still don't have someone in charge of something so vital and fair for our community? And we don't even for sure have it on the to-do list for 2021?

Chattanooga must do better than this. Yes, moving from 2% to 10.78% in a universe where 22% is fair is improvement. But the glacial pace of this improvement is absolutely appalling.

The city council needs to say so, and demand immediate action. Then council members need to put city money behind that demand.

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