A new study calls on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to end organized efforts to open contracting opportunities to minority- and women-owned businesses in some fields and to restructure and expand such programs in other fields.
The report recommends that the WSSC beef up its programs that help minority- and women-owned companies win key contracts in the areas of professional services, architecture, engineering and construction. But it recommends disbanding some of the utility's support programs in the fields of goods and general services because WSSC has been so successful in awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.
The Denver-based BBC Research & Consulting wrote the 198-page report for the WSSC, which is Maryland's largest water and sewer utility, serving 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The report comes as the utility has been roiled by controversy over allegations of cronyism and mismanagement by its governing board.
Andrew D. Brunhart, the utility's general manager since February, said increasing the number and size of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses is a top priority for the WSSC.
"We have been shooting for, and watching very carefully, the number of dollars spent in those areas," Brunhart said. "We are mindful of where we are, and if we are short, we need programs to assist in the opportunity."
To run programs to help minority companies win contracts, the WSSC is required to adhere to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring evidence -- such as the BBC report -- that disparity exists between the number of contracts awarded to minority companies and the availability of such businesses in the marketplace.
Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, said the report's recommendations to suspend some programs would hurt small and local businesses -- many of which are run by minorities who struggle to gain a foothold in the market, he said.
"In essence, this report appears to be de-emphasizing culturally deprived, African American businesses the opportunity to succeed," he said. "That's the crux of it."
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has assailed the utility this year over allegations of corruption, said he thinks that the WSSC needs to award more minority contracts but that the utility should make sure its support programs are tailored to address specific weaknesses.
"Minority participation is designed to address a wrong and to put people on a level playing field, and when those factors are considered, affirmative action participation works well," Miller said. "But the laws need to have some teeth."
Montgomery and Prince George's officials said it is too early to take a stance on the report's recommendations.