Latino advocate to head R.I. office in charge of minority business contracts

PROVIDENCE – A longtime leader and advocate for the Rhode Island Latino community will head the state department responsible for minority business contracting.

Gov. Daniel J. McKee at his weekly briefing on Tuesday named Tomás Ávila associate director for the R.I. Office of Equity, Diversity and Opportunity. Ávila is the executive director for nonprofit advocacy group Milenio Latino Institute, and has more than 12 years of experience working with and advocating for the Latino and minority community, including minority business owners, McKee said.

Ávila takes the helm of the office that oversees the state’s Minority Business Enterprise system – responsible for outreach to and certification of recognized women and minority-owned businesses and for ensuring the state complies with its own law to award 10% of contracts and purchases to these MBEs. 

The appointment comes on the heels of recent data and a corresponding report which found the state has continued to fall short on its own requirement. The state has only met its 10% goal twice in the 35 years since the law was passed, falling short every other year including in fiscal 2020, in part because former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo waived the requirement during the pandemic.

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The report, commissioned by the state to review the MBE program, also found the state “statistically discriminated against” minority businesses in awarding contracts and purchases. Specifically, the report stated that the percentage of certified minority businesses far exceeded the percentage of contracts and purchases awarded to minority-owned businesses. The report included a host of recommendations for how to improve this long standing compliance problem, including adding staffing to the department to ensure compliance, tracking and outreach to minority businesses.

Ávila’s appointment is not a new position. Rather, he fills a role that has been without a permanent leader for over one year since former associate director Cheryl Burell took a new job with the R.I. Department of Labor & Training in June 2020, a former spokesperson for then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo told PBN at the time. Dorinda Keene, the assistant administrator for the minority business enterprise compliance office, has served as the interim associate director since Burrell left. 

Ávila’s salary was not immediately available.

McKee also said the state will be conducting more regular reports to review compliance with the minority business contract law going forward. The Disparity Report is the first of its kind since the state law was passed 35 years ago.

“Thirty-plus years on the disparity report is far too long,” McKee said.

In other news, the governor defended the state’s stance to not mandate vaccinations or mask wearing in indoor settings, despite an increasing number of cities and states that have adopted these rules amid rising COVID-19 cases.

While the state’s COVID-19 case rate now puts it in the “high” transmission rate, under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s categories, hospitalization and death numbers remain low, McKee said. 

He added that the state may change its guidance on these policies if and when they determine it’s needed. The state is also considering requiring masks indoors at state-run health facilities, though when that will happen is unclear.

The state is also continuing to push to distribute its $200 million in federal stimulus money to renters in need, especially now that the federal eviction moratorium has ended. McKee highlighted the services through RentReliefRI, which is available for renters and landlords and can cover both direct housing payments and overdue utilities.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.