A column in the Business section yesterday incorrectly stated the amount of contracts on which Prince George's County may negotiate directly with minority firms. The maximum amount is $15,000. (Published 11/18/87)

Having failed in their latest attempt to get Prince George's County to adopt a mandatory set-aside program for minority contractors, proponents are threatening elected officials with political reprisals. That's not surprising to observers who have insisted all along that politics, rather than economic opportunity, is at the center of the furor over contract set-asides, which guarantee that a certain amount of county contracts go to minority contractors.

That's not to suggest, however, that minority firms in the county don't have legitimate complaints about affirmative action policies on procurement contracts. The evidence -- some of it compiled by county officials -- shows a disturbing absence of effective policies and procedures on the purchase of goods and services from minority firms. Certainly, key elected officials in the county recognize that fact. Indeed, the Prince George's County Council last week approved new policies intended to increase the number of contracts awarded to minority firms.

The stronger voluntary commitment by county officials is the product of a compromise -- carefully worked out by County Executive Parris Glendening and Council Chairman Hilda Pemberton -- based on significant input from key minority business leaders.

But even in the wake of the council's approval of stronger policies to provide more business for minority-owned firms, proponents of artificial set-asides are spoiling for a political fight. They even threatened legal action against the county at one point as a possible means of overthrowing the current voluntary program.

County officials are reluctant to approve a set-aside program, contending that it probably wouldn't stand up to a challenge in court. But advocates of a set-aside contend that the county has manipulated contracting procedures to deny minorities a fair share of business paid for with public funds.

Prince George's County has adopted two ambitious procurement programs since 1974 to increase minority participation. The latest would provide for a kind of set-aside, though neither county officials nor critics will call it that. The new program would restrict bidding on certain contracts to minorities when at least three such firms compete. The county also can negotiate directly with a minority firm on contracts up to $15 million.

Proponents of a set-aside program have refused to go along with those or any other voluntary affirmative action plan, insisting that 30 percent of the county's contracts be reserved for minorities.

But Dennis Bronwlee, director of the county's Minority Business Enterprise Office, estimates that minorities will receive about 30 percent, or $36 million, of the procurement budget for the fiscal year that ends next June. That's twice the amount of contracts received by minority companies in the county last year, according to Brownlee.

Projections obviously aren't enough at this stage, however. The next move is up to Glendening. The report of an internal county audit provides him an excellent opportunity to build credibility for the county's voluntary minority contracting program. It also gives him the ammunition he needs to deflate the rhetoric of those who threaten him and Pemberton with political reprisals.

According to the preliminary report, the county's minority contracting program is hampered by serious deficiencies in the operation of the office that administers the program. Shortcomings in the department run the gamut of sloppy procedures, from a failure to maintain proper records to ignoring county contract bid procedures. The office not only lacks a mechanism for monitoring contract bids from minority firms but has no written policy for certain types of purchases, according to the report.

Small wonder, then, that even the most moderate among minority contractors in the county complain bitterly about a lack of commitment to a voluntary contracting program.

Although he is strongly opposed to guaranteed set-asides, Glendening maintains he is committed to a policy that will make it easier for minority companies to do business with the county. The compromise that he and Pemberton worked out is an improvement on his original program to increase the number of contracts awarded to minorities.

While there is considerable sentiment among minority business owners for a set-aside program, few among the more moderate entrepreneurs in the county doubt Glendening's commitment. It appears then, from the internal audit report, that Glendening has been sandbagged by an entrenched bureaucracy in county government. The deficiencies noted in the internal audit report are potentially more damaging to Glendening's credibility than veiled political threats.

It is unlikely that any issue other than the widely publicized problems at the county jail has been a greater source of annoyance and embarrassment for Glendening. County corrections officials announced last week that problems at the jail have been corrected. But it took a major shakeup, including the firing of some personnel, to correct those problems -- assuming they have been fixed.

Similar drastic measures will have to be taken in offices that administer the county's purchasing programs if Glendening and other officials hope to restore credibility among minority business owners.