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NAACP presses MSD to increase commitment to minority contractors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2012 - With billions of dollars of projects on the horizon, the Metropolitan Sewer District is facing pressure to change its contracting policies toward minorities and women.

MSD -- which manages wastewater and storm water for St. Louis and St. Louis County -- announced last year that it would undertake a $4.7 billion plan to settle a federal lawsuit. The consent decree settled litigation over untreated sewage overflowing into waterways after heavy rainfalls.

Currently, MSD's goals for minority and women-owned contracting vary, depending on the work. For instance, a contract for at least $50,000 has a "blended" 25 percent goal for "minority business enterprises" and "women business enterprises," with a minimum for each type of business.

In December, the Board of Trustees scuttled a resolution changing the policy. The resolution would have stipulated that contracts worth at least $50,000 had to include 25 percent for minority-owned businesses and 5 percent for women-owned businesses. Those percentages would apply, among other things, to building contracts and professional service contracts involving engineers and architects.

The resolution set goals of 25 percent minority and 6.9 percent women on construction projects greater than $50,000. It would have also added local workforce targets of 25 percent minority and 5 percent women on professional services contracts greater than $50,000.

Lance LeComb, a spokesman for MSD, said some trustees were concerned about adopting new policies without a disparity study first. Two St. Louis trustees -- John Goffstein and David Visintainer -- and one St. Louis County trustee, Gerald Feldhaus, voted against the resolution.

"There are certainly some concerns about some numbers put forward in the resolution, and that's what was expressed by the board at the time," LeComb said. "Certainly it was not a hesitancy to make changes to the program. It wasn't a hesitancy to do what is right for the community. It was a recognition that there has to be a process in place before you make wholesale changes."

Spurring the debate are the billions in projects that MSD must undertake because of the consent decree.

"While the vast majority of this work will be out of sight and thus out of the day-to-day thoughts of St. Louisans, make no mistake: This agreement will be felt in our region for decades to come," MSD Executive Director Jeff Theerman said. "From the creation of jobs to the protection of our region's waterways to preventing basement backups, this agreement and the resulting spending will be unparalleled in its scope and reach."

Adolphus Pruitt II, the president of the St. Louis branch of the NAACP, also said the spending represents a "stimulus" creating "economic opportunity for not only workers, but for contractors and professional service providers."

"MSD now has some existing goals that aim to ensure participation from minorities," Pruitt said. "But those goals are fairly understated based on what I see as the segment of the population. We feel that MSD should strive to give everybody a fair share in expending those dollars."

Because of the failure to pass a resolution in December, Pruitt said earlier this week that his group is preparing for a nationwide boycott of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Initial targets, he said, would be casinos and conventions.

"We're going through a process now," said Pruitt, adding that the boycott was recently approved by the state NAACP. "Our next stage is go ahead and get national approval so that we can take it nationwide. And by April, we hope to have the first round of information informing the country that St. Louis and St. Louis County have chosen not to be diverse, and because of that we shouldn't do business with them."

'improvements Can and Should Be Made'

At a MSD board meeting Thursday, Theerman used his report to address the controversy.

For much of 2011, Jeff Theerman said, the board and MSD staff was "engaged in a dialogue amongst themselves and with various stakeholders about the next steps to continue the process of improving MSD's diversity program."

While the program "cannot equally be all things to all people," Theerman added that it can "certainly serve as a catalyst for change in our community."

"While MSD is proud of the diversity program we have today, we by no means claim perfection and we have gone on record over the past year that additional continuous improvements can and should be made," Theerman said. "As we begin an unparalleled construction program, we should strive to have an unparalleled program of inclusion for minorities, women and disadvantaged businesses -- not just in terms of contracts alone but in terms of workplace diversity as well.

"In short, the old way of doing business in our region needs to change and MSD is in a position to help with that change," he added.

Theerman laid out three-step plan:

  • Having a special board meeting later this month introducing an ordinance for a disparity study. A contract to conduct the study, which LeComb said could take a year, is slated to be approved in February.
  • Presenting a new resolution in February to provide "interim" changes to MSD's policies while the disparity study is under way.
  • Engaging in a "dialogue" with a "wide variety of stakeholders."

"We know that some will view my words tonight as simply that -- words that are not associated with action," Theerman said. "However, by making these statements tonight, there is a public record of these commitments. And over the coming weeks, there will be associated action."
Pruitt said his group will be monitoring MSD's actions. For instance, he said he wants interim changes to include more training opportunities, to address concerns raised by labor.

The minutes from the December meeting report that Jeff Aboussie of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council said the proposed new guidelines "could create safety concerns for his membership, particularly affecting the open cut sewer construction."

Start of update: In a statement to the Beacon, Gary Elliott of the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council said Laborer's Union "has raised concerns with the proposed policy, as drafted by MSD because it was done so without any facts or figures supporting the proposed goals."

"We have questioned the availability of minority and women contractors in the field of sewer construction," Elliott said. "MSD's current policy ... is consistently met by the contractors the Laborers work with, but are there sufficient numbers of quality contractors who can meet these new goals? We are not sure, and that is where a disparity study, such as the one proposed to be undertaken by the district, will help."

About the workforce requirements, Elliott added that his union does have "sufficient numbers of minorities as members, but many of theme are already employed by contractors for other types of work, such as highway construction."

"Before making changes to an already proven program, why not conduct a study to determine if the market will sustain the percentages, both for businesses and workforce that is proposed," he said. End of update.

Pruitt said that if the interim guidelines are acceptable, then his group would not go ahead with the boycott.

"We are very realistic," Pruitt said. "If they put some interim processes in place and those processes are something that will move everybody in the right direction, of course we will pull back on the boycott. The intent is not to bring harm to anybody."

Pruitt added, "The only other thing we'll be looking at very hard is making sure they're not coming up with some interim things to try to ward off a boycott while the disparity study takes place. Those interim measures have to have some substance."

Criticism Of Slay And Dooley

Pruitt directed some criticism toward St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who appoint the six members of MSD's board. He said the two should have done more to urge their appointees to adopt the December resolution.

"The Board of Trustees of MSD is their appointees," Pruitt said. "And we refuse to believe that they do not influence their appointees."

Attempts to receive comment from Slay's administration were unsuccessful.

Asked if could have put more pressure on his appointees -- as Pruitt suggested -- Dooley said, "I recognize that you need two votes from each side for it to pass. St. Louis County had two out of the three. That's all I'm responsible for."

Still, Dooley said the issue was far from over. "It's not the end of it. I'm confident that we can work something out."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.