Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cloudy Skies Still Linger Over Nashville Airport Contracting with Women and Minority Owned Firms





Several years ago, I decided that competing for business where I must label my company as a small woman minority business enterprise was not worth the hoops one must jump through in order to do business with government agencies. There are not enough chemicals formulated to exterminate the vexations that are part of the bidding process before you ever see the first pest that must be eradicated for a government pest control contract. Between being given a colonoscopy without anesthesia to work for an agency that will probe every reason not to work with you and the label you have given yourself by checking the boxes that can make one feel as inept as third grade dropout trying to fill out the SAT to attend college, many small companies believe trying to do business as a SMWBE or DWE is rigged before the invitation to bid is sent out. If the spotlight is not on the process, from the invitation to bid to the awarding of the contract, night and day, the  government contracting procurement system recycles the same frequent fliers from the board approvals to program managers to the contractors to the suppliers to the awarding of the contract from one agency to another. 

Even though I have renounced many minority business programs because of the lack of accountability and the system one must work under to do business, from time to time, I will attend a bid hearing or a government networking event solely to meet other entrepreneurs. Nothing is wrong with networking with majority and minority firms to let them know you are capable of doing business with them without a government mandate. And nothing is wrong with keeping an eye on minority business programs that have the potential to be highlighted for best practices and exposing those who help perpetuate the insanity of even attempting to do business with federal, state, and local agencies as a small company. 

Metro Nashville Airport Authority (MNAA)’s SMWBE program should be one of those programs that must be reviewed and microscopically probed often because of its documented history and failure to correct practices that has revealed how it works (not) with women and minority owned firms. The MNAA’s SMWBE program has been a source of strife in the minority business community for several decades. Doing business with the airport has long been known to produce millionaires, for some, by the awarding of federal and state contracts. Because the airport has tried to keep up with the growth of the rapid changing Middle Tennessee Region, the airport can be a plane load of economic opportunities...for some. The expansion of MNAA and the ease of accessibility to and from the airport are often touted to attract companies that are rich in diverse people from other areas of the country and from around the world, to transplant offices and their greatest commodity, their workforce, to our corporation embracing city. But rich in diversity corporations rarely hear about the disparity study submitted by Griffin and Strong to the MNAA in September of 2007 that backs MNAA’s stated awareness of the need to do more business with local women and minorities owned firms and the number of complaints that have been an “invitation for a lawsuit” for practices that are out of touch with a city that uses diversity and inclusion in its branding to increase economic growth in our area. 

This month (eight years after the 2007 disparity study), I contacted the MNAA Office of Business Diversity Development to inquire about upcoming contracting opportunities that may be on the horizon. Attending meetings can help one sift through minority program's website BS and actual business being done.  Since I did not hear back from the office, I decided to go to MNAA’s office which is two exits from me. On Tuesday, March 17, 2015, the day I stopped by, to my delight (and later dismay) General Aviation Operations Planning and Engineering (GAOPE) Committee meeting was scheduled to vote on the awarding of two contracts with MNAA. The GAOPE Committee with four Commissioners present (Samuels, Mosley, Joslin, and Wright) turned into an information fest that my pen and note pad devoured from start to the end of the meeting. The comments by the Commissioners gave validity to many who have longed stated MNAA has not learned from its past bad performance reviews in the disparity study by vendors and sub-contractors and why no one should believe that MNAA can police itself to foster contracting opportunities for women and minority owned business for locally funded airport projects. 

Below is some of the particulars of the public meeting that shocked me how MNAA awards contracts. The meeting reminded me of stories told by my Mississippi grandparents who lived through Jim Crow South’s unwritten business rules that were often made up on the spot and no matter how a minority owned company ('black folks in business') persevered through a meeting to show they were the best company for the job and could compete, they would be denied the contract even when the majority owned company practiced overt racism in broad daylight for all to see. The majority company was forgiven for being questioned and the minority firm was punished for even attempting to compete and barred from questioning the practices and principles of those involved in the contract decision.

Now the Meeting
The meeting started off slow discussing a bid for asphalt. Nothing seemed unsound in the reasons stated why the airport needed more pavement and recommended a company who is already doing business with the airport to continue their services since they had equipment already on the airport property. The information about the contract and details about the project were displayed on the big screen along with the amount for the contract. A vote was called to approve the contract with a dollar amount of nearly $800,000. All of the Commissioners voted to approve. I wrote "smooth landing," in my notes.

But when Floyd Crook, director of MNAA maintenance facilities, took to discussing the janitorial contract; turbulence was encountered and that contract was met with greater scrutiny that showed some serious issues in how contracts are awarded at the city's prized airport. According to Mr Crook, the "airport staff" (no staff names mentioned) recommended awarding the contract to Service Management Systems (SMS) because they were great to work with and they provided good services. When Commissioner Samuels asked for the award amount they were about to vote on, Mr. Crook did not have the figures nor were the figures on the screen like the details of concrete contract for all to see. (MNAA is approving the contract for janitorial services but Mr. Crook does not have the amount in front of him nor did the board have amount they were voting on. Interesting.)

Commissioner Samuels waited a few more minutes and requested the bid amount again and a staff person jotted out the room to retrieve it. When she returned, Commissioner Samuels stated the award amount was for $13,659,555. I sat stunned not at the amount but that the amount was going to be voted on without stating how much. With a swish of the pen, a company was going to be awarded millions without having to state the contract value? Hmm. The staff must really feel good about SMS. But as the meeting continued, more questions about SMS raised serious concerns as to why would the airport staff feel so confident about this firm who is receiving the contract for the third time. SMS was having one heck of a St. Patrick's Day Party and it was only not even 10:00am.

Commissioner Samuels asked about the scoring system that was used by the airport staff to review companies' work performances with the airport. Mr. Crook stated that scoring system was 1-6 but will change to 1-5 later. When asked what was the score for SMS, Mr. Crook stated, "no specific numeric figure could be given" but the staff recommendation was to work with SMS because they had "done well." Huh? You follow that. I didn't. By now, I was sitting on the edge of my seat and the slow firing of pointed questions to Mr. Crook was just getting started. 

Part Two: Why Previous Performance Not Considered When Awarding Firm $13 Million Dollars. 

Part Three: In Nashville; "A Management Fee" is Not A Kick Back Nor Are Primes Barred From Bidding After Receiving Fees

Part Four: The Financials: Pay to Play Sub Contractor Rules Can Cost You A Contract


Part Five: When Minority Firms Do Not Practice What They Are Screaming


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