The chairman of the state's video lottery commission says his panel chose to amend the minority and women-owned business participation goals for Baltimore City's future slots parlor, not Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Despite media reports and public accusations to the contrary, the mayor and the City of Baltimore are not responsible for the decision," Donald C. Fry, chairman of the Lottery Facility Location Commission, wrote in a Sept. 1 memo to concerned city leaders and activists. "The decision was solely that of the state Commission."
Rawlings-Blake's commitment to Black and women-owned businesses was publically questioned after various media outlets reported that minority participation goals were diluted in an attempt to encourage competitive bids for the city's long-stalled slots facility.
Mayoral contender Otis Rolley criticized the mayor for the amendments at a recent press conference. "Why did the Mayor allow this to happen – and why is she refusing to answer questions about it?" Rolley said. "Does she not know what her administration is doing? Either way, in a city populated by majority African Americans and women, any waiver that supports allowing big developers to escape the city's hiring obligation for the majority of our residents is unacceptable."
From the beginning, Rawlings-Blake's team insisted that state leaders called the shots on the eased requirements. "She supports minority businesses and has made it a priority during her term in office to support business that employs minorities and women and local residents," Keiana Page, Rawlings-Blake's campaign spokeswoman, told the AFRO in a phone interview.
State officials validated Page's statements Sept. 6, and David R. Paulson, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, asserted that the requirements were "not waived or eased," but merely "amended."
"The state's [minority requirement] goals are still the goals and we are moving forward with them," Paulson said.
In memos forwarded to the AFRO, Fry says that the state lottery commission opted for "flexible" amendments to the state's 25 percent and the city's 37 percent minority participation clauses following a July 2011 legal challenge from a company from the panel's past – the Baltimore City Entertainment Group.
In the ongoing lawsuit, the company – an unsuccessful former Baltimore City slots bidder – argues that Maryland's minority participation requirements are unconstitutional because the state failed to commission a study proving that minority businesses face discrimination during slots bidding.
State expert Dr. Jon Wainwright completed Maryland's "disparity" study last month, according to Fry.
Although Wainwright found inequities in the slots industry's bidding process, he recommended that the state adopt more "flexible" amendments. The lottery commission agreed on Aug. 17 to set separate minority participation benchmarks for each bidder based on their proposal and the availability of minority firms to perform their specified work. Stanley Tucker, CEO of Meridian Management Group, referenced a disparity study by the independent agency NERA Economic Consulting, published in February of this year, which presented a similar conclusion about the continued existence of disparity in the state.
Tucker said guaranteeing minority access to contracts and participation has a positive impact on the economy, as "minorities hire minorities" and a lack of contracts, exacerbates an already bad job situation. "I would think everyone would look for ways to make that happen," he said.
But some leaders in the minority business community, including Arnold M. Jolivet of the American Minority Contractors and Business Association, say the commission's decision is sending another message. "It's a slap in the face," Jolivet said in a recent phone interview. "It says to the minority businesses in the city, ‘We don't really care for you, and if you want to participate in these slots you have to do it on your own.'"
The business leader says the city – pointedly Rawlings-Blake – is breaking city law by not fighting the new provisions. "The state doesn't have the legal authority to waive the city's minority law," Jolivet said. "And the city knows that. The mayor knows that. That argument simply does not hold weight. They are required to follow the minority participation law under city rules; they don't have discretion."
The state's promise to establish unique minority requirements for each bidder, he added, is "just too uncertain, too speculative. It's not going to work … and without that requirement there won't be any minorities that get these contracts."
But Fry insists that potential bidders must still vow to make "good faith efforts" to reach minority participation goals established for their license. If they don't, according to Tucker, "it will have a negative impact on an already bad situation."
"The State's overall goal of 25 percent MBE participation and the City's overall goal of 37 percent MBE participation remain in place," Luwanda Jenkins, special secretary to the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs, said in a statement sent to the Afro.
The results of Wainwright's disparity study, Jenkins said in the statement, led the state Attorney General to conclude "the Slots MBE program satisfies constitutional standards."
"The Slots Commission's recent amendments to the FRP to construct the Baltimore City Slots facility are completely consistent with a goal of running a strong and vital MBE program consistent with federal constitutional standards," Jenkins said.
The new rules apply to planned slots terminals in Baltimore City and Allegany County. Bids for the 3,750-slot parlor set to open on a parcel of land south of Baltimore City's M&T Bank Stadium are due Sept. 23.