Expressing anger and frustration, D.C. Police Chief Burtell Jefferson said this week that city administrative procedures are preventing his department from awarding 25 percent of its contract dollars to minority buinesses, as required by D.C. law.
In an interview, Jefferson placed the blame on the D.C. Department of General Services (DGS), headed by Director Sam Starobin, which awards city contracts above $2,500. Jefferson said that the police department cannot meet its minority contract goal of 25 percent because DGS fails to put enough police department contracts for goods and services into a special "set aside" category for minority bidders.
Permitting DGS to award all contracts above $2,500, Jefferson noted, means that his department controls only about $1.5 million of the $6.3 million that the police spend each year.
"I want to give more minorities contracts-it's as simple as that," said Jefferson, as he explained his problems, which have loomed before the police department like giant spools of red tape.
"It (the $2,500 limit) doesn't do a damn thing to bring us near the 25 percent goal set by law...What the hell can you do with $2,500 when you are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts?" said Jefferson.
Starobin responded to the criticism of DGS procedures by saying that D.C. law concerning minority contracts was "poorly written" and "unrealistic." He also disagreed with Jefferson on what the law required.
The police chief noted that the D.C. Minority Business Opportunity Commission (MBOC), created in 1976 to oversee the award of city contracts to minority firms, is without funding from Congress. The agency has been operating with CETA workers and temporary directors in temporary headquarters.
In MBOC's first year, none of the estimated $85 million in city contracts was awarded to minority firms. In 1977, only 2 percent of city contract dollars went to minority firms, according to LeRoy C. Johnson, new MBOC director.
Ethel Williams, who recently served as a temporary director, said, "Our hands are tied. We have no money. We do just the best we can with what we have."
The situation was characterized by one city official this way: "It's embarassing that we as a city agency run by blacks can't meet the 25 percent goal. I resent it as a black official."
Complaints concerning the lack of control over procurement have come not only from the police chief, but from other heads of city agencies, according to James Baldwin, director of the Department of Human Rights.
Baldwin, whose department oversees implementation of the minority "set aside" law, recently ordered an investigation into city contracting practices. He said that although the city as a whole has apparently met its minority contracting goal of 25 percent-largely through the award of an $8-million heating oil contract to a minority firm-each city agency must also reach the 25 percent goal.
Baldwin, who said his investigation has been prompted by complaints from minority contractors, is asking each city agency to provide figures for the number of minority contracts it has awarded in the past year.
Starobin, in discussing the "set aside" law, denied that he is insensitive to minority concerns. But he said:
"It's like cops and robbers...If there is a problem, someone has to wear the black hat. These department heads are faced with an unrealistic law, so quite naturally they do the easy thing-they blame the Department of General Services."
Starobin said the law is "unclear" as to whose responsibility it is to reach the 25 percent goal in each agency. He said he believes each department head is responsible only for contracts up to the $2,500 limit. Contracts above $2,500, which go from city agencies to DGS to be put for bid, in effect become part of a DGS pool, he said. Starobin said his only obligation is to award 25 percent of these contracts to minority firms.
Under the terms of the D.C. Minority Contracting Act of 1976 (1-95), agencies are required to strive to award 25 percent of all contract dollars to minority business. The law states, "Each agency of the District of Columbia, including those agencies which contract a portion of their procurement through the Department of General Services, shall allocate its construction contracts and its contracts for goods and services in such a fashion to reach a goal of 25 percent of the dollar volume of all procurement to be let to local minority business enterprises."
Jefferson's increasing dissatisfaction with city contract procedures has been spelled out in three letters sent to the Minority Business Opportunity Commission.
The most recent letter, and the strongest, according to Capt. Isaac Fulwood Jr.-the chief's spokesman and a member of the police department Office of Finance And Management-was sent two weeks ago along with the department quarterly report on minority contracting.
"The chief doesn't want to take on anyone. He is not trying to point the finger anywhere. He has been trying to take care of this problem in-house and through channels," said Fulwood, who would not release the third letter.
"The police chief is not trying to take the procurement authority away from the Department of General Services. He is only trying to get them to do more minority contracting," added Fulwood.
A spokesperson for the Minority Business Opportunity Commission, which oversees enforcement of D.C. law 1-95, said the agency had received the letter from the police chief and had met with several of his officers to discuss the problems. The police department has also met with DGS personnel to discuss the issues, Fulwoodsaid.
Fulwood said that methods are now being worked out with DGS to increase the number of contracts for minority firms.
Starobin complained that the 25 per-cent goal is a "political figure" and said the city should be flexible in determining how many contracts are set aside for minorities. "If you set the goal as 25 percent, and not set a flexible goal year-to-year, then you need scapegoats," he observed.
Starobin said he had not seen the police chief's letter but it had been read to him. He added, " The police department requires cars, ammunition and uniforms, and this puts us in an impossible position because there are no minority contractors in these areas to handle these requirements."
Starobin also claimed that the figures provided by many of the city agencies attempting to meet the city law are "not reliable". He said some of those figures are developed as a result of joint ventures between minorities and nonminorities, where the minorities receive a very little share of the profits.
"It's time the City Council took a look at this bill and cleaned it up," said Starobin. "This 'set aside' law is prone to abuse." He said many of the minority firms need only a telephone and an office in the District of Columbia to quality for the special benefits of the law.
Starobin also said that minority "brokers" are taking advantage of the law. He said these "brokers" bid for minority contracts, then give the contracts to nonminorities who carry out the contracts for big profits.
"I'm not insensitive to minority concerns," he said. "Back in 1972 I wrote a memo explaining that the only way we could help minority entrepreneurs was to create a 'set-aside' program for them.
"We hav done everything we can, though a lot more needs to be done. Getting minorities registered has been a problem. Even those minorities who we have been doing business with regularly, we have had to take by the hand to get them registered so they would not be frozen out after the law went into effect."
Minority firms must be certified by the D.C. Minority Business Opportunity Commission before they can participate in the "set-aside" program. According to a spokesperson, about 160 minority firms have been certifed.
Starobin charged that "business is leaving the city. The movement is toward the suburds. I can literally count the number of laundries, bakeries and other large employers that have left Washington . . . The city is going against the tide with its firm quota for minority contracts."
He rhetorically asked how the city could require such a large percentage of minority contracts set aside when there was not that much business in Washington.
Starobin suggested that a reporter talk to DGS procurement officers when he (Starobin) was not around to influence them and ask them if they though he was being fair: "Then you can make your own decision."
As part of the new mayor's reorganization plan, Starobin said, he was requested to send a list of recommendations concerning ways to improve implementation of the minority contracting law, which Marion Barry says he will continue to support.
Starobin believes Barry should review the entire law and determine which segments should be sharpened, whether the law should benefit local minority entrepreneurs in D.C., the Washington area or anywhere in the country, and what the city considers excessive when trying to decide whether a minority contractor's bid is too costly.
"I have been the one in the past who made the (latter) determination," he said. "It should be the mayor's job, as chief procurement officer for the city, to determine how much the city is willing to spend for the social good."
As the Starobin's future as director of DGS, he said: "I've seen the mayor's hit list and I'm on it . . . My only alternative is to find another job.
"Barry said he will meet with every department head and talk over their future with compassion . . . But what that really means is that he will give you a night with your wife and kids before he hangs you."