Shelby County Commission Moves Toward More Fixes in Minority Business Rules

By Bill Dries  |   Memphis Daily News

Shelby County commissioners meet Monday, Jan. 8, for the first time in 2018 and have a fairly simple agenda along with some longer-range issues to discuss.

Among the more immediate items on Monday’s agenda is a $1.5 million contract for mobile data terminals, tablets and vehicle wireless routers that Tate Computer Systems Inc. of Memphis would provide to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.

The technology is the sheriff’s office first move toward body cameras for deputies.

The commission meets at 4 p.m. at the Vasco Smith Administration Building, 160 N. Main St. Follow the meeting @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols, for live coverage. The meeting time is an hour later than usual as commissioners attend funeral services earlier Monday afternoon at Idlewild Presbyterian for former Memphis City Council member Lewis Donelson.

The contract with Tate Computer Systems is an agreement with a minority, black-owned business that is also locally owned.

It is a contract that advances county government’s general goal of increasing the amount of county government contracts with minority-owned and local companies.

But commissioners and the administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell are still working their way through the terms of a minority and locally-owned business program approved a year ago. It provides specific percentages for specific minorities and other groups to get a share of county government contracts.

But even after the resolution was approved in December 2016, there remained fundamental questions about differentiating between minority businesses, black-owned business, women-owned businesses and locally-owned businesses.

Further complicating the effort is abiding by the specific findings of a disparity study. The study documented and confirmed disparities when it comes to awarding county government contracts to businesses in those categories for specific items like professional services or office supplies. The disparity study findings would be part of the county’s response if the percentages for minority businesses in specific categories were challenged in a lawsuit.

Toward the end of 2017, the commission hired former commissioner Shep Wilbun as a diversity compliance officer to report to commissioners on the particulars of contracts.

Now the commission is considering spending up to $50,000 for attorney Ricky E. Wilkins to consult on changes or fixes to how the goals are to be met. Wilkins was the attorney for the consulting firm that did the disparity study for county government.

The commission won’t vote on the proposal Monday.

Van Turner

Commissioner Van Turner delayed a vote on his proposal to hire Wilkins last week and instead set up working sessions to revise the ordinance for Jan. 10 and Jan. 17.

The idea is to identify specific problems or hitches in the rules in advance of getting Wilkins to weigh in.

“We need a legal opinion or a consultant’s opinion to say this is not violating the disparity study,” Turner said last week. “We need to be specific and I think this is going to crystallize what is going to happen if we can deal with the cold hard facts.”

“I don’t disagree at all that we need to resolve some issues,” said county chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy in committee sessions last week. “I think there are some misunderstandings regarding what the ordinance requires. There is a goal of 20 percent overall … of our purchases need to be awarded to LOSBs (locally-owned small businesses). It’s very difficult to achieve because the threshold for LOSB is very low. We don’t have enough of them.”

And if a LOSB does well and becomes bigger, it could “graduate” from the program and not be able to bid as an LOSB in future county contracts.

Commissioners rejected a food services contract for the Shelby County Jail last year that the administration recommended go to Aramark, which was working with a local subcontractor, instead of going with another locally-owned business. Commissioners and Wilbun noted that Aramark didn’t meet some of the county guidelines for certification of local and minority subcontractors.

Willie Brooks

“If it doesn’t meet the muster, I don’t know why it even comes to the commission,” commissioner Willie Brooks said last week. “That should have been clear to the administration. If it doesn’t clear them, why are we even talking about it?”

Brooks said it points to the need for more involvement by the commission and the county’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office before a contract reaches the commission for a vote. And that would include involvement as early as when the county drafts a request for proposals.

Kennedy said there are questions about which comes first in awarding a contract – the goals for minority businesses or the goals for locally-owned businesses – when they aren’t a business that qualifies under both categories as Tate’s business did.

“There are several ways to make the goal and one way is not to have specific subcontracting goals,” Kennedy said. “It’s not in the ordinance.”

Kennedy also defended the administration from criticism by some commissioners that it is trying to skirt the percentages.

“It permeates our business on a daily basis in terms of how we are going to meet it and also get business done,” he said.

Brooks was willing to concede that the commission has made “some mistakes” that need to be corrected.

“My question is how soon can it happen?” he asked. “We need to have a pecking order if you will. We need to determine some of these things – what is more important?”

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