The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) recently released a report saying it has failed in awarding contracts to minority owned business (MBE).

The study, done by Mason Tillman Associates (MTA), examined the contracts handed out from 2004 through 2009. It says that WSSC significantly underutilized MBE in construction, architecture and engineering, goods and services and professional services.

MTA recommended options for WSSC to consider, but officials at the organization say they already see the writing on the wall to explore other options as a result of the study.

“It’s important that WSSC fosters a business environment that is inclusive in purchasing practices, expands contract opportunities and cultivates the growth of small, local and minority businesses,” said Towanda Livingston, director of the WSSC Small Local and Minority Business Enterprise (SLMBE) Office.

The study scrutinized bids, awards and payments to MBEs that bid for contracts over that period in addition to researching the regional market to determine whether enough MBEs exist to meet WSSC’s needs.

Part of that research was to interview MBE owners to see what kind of barriers stood in their way of receiving contracts. According to the study, owners felt they were held to a different standard than those of non-minority companies as well as being disadvantaged due to a lack of vast resources.

“Unfair tactics by WSSC managers and inspectors were also reported by several interviewees,” the report states. “Furthermore, there was a report that large majority-owned firms were able to convince or coerce WSSC selection panels to select them because the panel members would most likely work for such Caucasian prime contractors after leaving WSSC.”

Despite this finding and the Commission’s acknowledgement that it needs to change how it award contracts, WSSC officials said it was fair in its contracting process. John White, WSSC public affairs manager, told the AFRO WSSC has always been committed to providing opportunities to these unrepresented groups. Specifically, White said, WSSC awarded over $77 million in contracts and paid nearly $60 million in expenditures to MBEs. Those numbers represented 29 percent of all contract awarded and 26 percent of all contract expenditures respectively.

“The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission takes its responsibility to meet the expectations of our Minority Business Enterprise program very seriously,” White said. “Our success depends on our ability to manage costs, provide safe and reliable service to our customers and we recognize that MBE firms play a key role in helping us achieve our goals. WSSC is committed to supporting the growth of MBE firms and developing sustainable relationships with our MBE firms.”

WSSC is now re-evaluating its MBE program, which expires April 30, and hopes to have a long-term agenda in place by then. In order to do that, it will host several community meetings and public hearings to discuss what should happen next. The first community meeting took place on Feb. 16 in Laurel. Subsequent public hearings will take place on Feb. 23 in Upper Marlboro and Feb. 24 in Rockville.

According to WSSC general manager and CEO Jerry N. Johnson, this phase will be “the foundation for creating a legally sufficient minority business enterprise program.”

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO