CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley made good on a campaign promise Wednesday when he announced the creation of a new advisory council to channel more city contracts to companies owned by women and minorities.
The question is, will this effort be any different?
Cranley’s initiative marks the third time since 2009 that officials have undertaken a major effort to improve the city of Cincinnati’s dismal minority contracting results.
Two of the people who have pushed hardest for change in recent years say they believe this time will be different for one reason: Cranley.
“It’s the mayor, that’s the difference,” said Councilman Christopher Smitherman, who was president of the NAACP Cincinnati chapter in 2009 when the group blasted former Mayor Mark Mallory for the city’s poor minority-contracting results. “He’s taking ownership.”
Added Councilman Charlie Winburn: “Former Mayor Mark Mallory is a good man, but I think he talked inclusion and equality, and his actions spoke differently.”
History Of Attempts To Improve
Mallory did act on the issue, though.
In March 2009, Mallory formed the OPEN Cincinnati Task Force. He took that step just weeks after the NAACP Cincinnati chapter took a vote of “no confidence” in Mallory’s leadership over the city’s contracting results.
The OPEN recommendations that didn’t cost the city any money were implemented quickly. But those that required extra funding stalled as the city grappled with other budget pressures.
Then in 2011, Cincinnati Councilman Charlie Winburn unveiled his Cincinnati Competitive Edge Initiative, a proposal he developed with business owners and consultants to try to give small companies more support in winning contracts with the city.
Council ultimately passed a version of that proposal, and city officials hired a team of consultants who have been working for the past two years to implement many of the OPEN recommendations that had stalled .
Contracting Numbers Still Low
Still, there’s been little progress.
At his news conference Wednesday, Cranley noted that the most recent city figures show:
• Only 2.7 percent of city contracts have been awarded to businesses owned by African-Americans;
• None – 0 percent – have been awarded to Hispanic-owned companies;
• And 6 percent have been awarded to businesses owned by women.
“These numbers just don’t reflect the diversity of our community, and they’ve got to be improved,” Cranley said.
Cranley’s plan calls for creating an Economic Inclusion Advisory Council, comprised of business and religious leaders and economic inclusion experts.
He and council are authorizing acting City Manager Scott Stiles to “contract with a qualified consultant” to benchmark best practices in other cities, draft a plan for an Office of Minority Inclusion and work with the city manager to identify at least two women- or minority-owned businesses per month that could provide services to the city at a reduced cost.
The $175,000 contract will be paid for using money that’s already been budgeted for city positions that aren’t filled, Cranley said, so it will be “revenue neutral.”
Janet Reid, managing partner of the consulting firm Global Novations and a former chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber board, is expected to win that contract. Reid is respected locally and across the country for her work in economic inclusion.
Building On Past Efforts
Reid said after Cranley’s news conference that she expects her work to build upon past efforts, which she stressed she does not view as failures.
OPEN Cincinnati and Winburn’s recent efforts will provide “learning points,” she said, that she and her team will consider as they begin this work.
Cranley is hoping the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee will fund trips to Cleveland and Atlanta for members of the inclusion council, he said, so they can see what those cities are doing that’s working better.
“We are really looking at what is actually operational someplace else,” said Vincent Brown, Reid’s former partner who is now president of V Randolph Brown and Sons. “It’s almost like a demonstration project.”
The OPEN Cincinnati task force also studied successful programs in other cities, such as Atlanta, and programs in cities of comparable size, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis. The lead consultant for that study was Mel Gravely, founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking and a nationally known inclusion expert, noted Sean Rugless, CEO of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce and the co-chair of the OPEN group. Rugless also will be part of Cranley's new council.
“With the last administration, OPEN was a good start,” Rugless said. “Contracting still remains at a level no one’s happy with.”
The mission of the OPEN group
was broader, said Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA, in part because it also audited the city’s contracting operations.
“I see this new effort as a little more pragmatic, more focused,” said Cornejo, who also is part of the new council. “OPEN was in a way a little bit hard to maneuver.”
The fact that Cranley’s plan calls for presenting two new minority- or woman-owned companies to the city administration per month also means his approach has the potential to provide “more tangible” results more quickly, Cornejo said.
The Price Of Progress
Still, the question of whether Cranley’s initiative is successful could come down to money.
Mallory’s administration spent $160,000 on the OPEN study, Rugless said, but was could never muster the money needed to implement everything the task force recommended.
Cranley acknowledged after his news conference Wednesday that the Office of Minority Inclusion that he envisions would require a staff of three to four people.
He doesn’t know yet where the money will come from to fund that office, saying that he will wait and see what the new council’s work yields.
The mayor stressed that the city also is continuing work on a disparity study, known as a Croson study, which should be finished sometime next year. That study will determine whether discrimination still exists in the way the city awards contracts. If the study finds that to be the case, Cincinnati could legally award contracts to companies based on gender and race.
This new initiative is aimed at making improvements no matter what the Croson study finds, he said.
The bottom line, Cranley said, is that Cincinnati “has gross disparities in health and wealth in this community, and that doesn’t work.”
“I think that it will be better for everyone if we can do this better,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
For the third time since 2009, local minority business advocates will be watching to see if City Hall can get it done.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.