R.I. Black Business Association slams state for noncompliance with minority contracting law

LISA RANGLIN, executive director for the Rhode Island Black Business Association, criticized state lawmakers for a continued history of noncompliance with state laws around contracting with minority businesses. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Black Business Association had harsh words for state officials after a recent report revealed continued noncompliance with the state’s own regulations around contracting with minority-owned businesses.

The association in a statement and press conference on Thursday criticized Gov. Daniel J. McKee and the R.I. General Assembly for “sitting on their hands” when it comes to supporting the Black business community. The criticism comes after recent data from the R.I Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity shows the state again fell short of the requisite 10% of contracts spent on certified minority- and women-owned businesses in fiscal 2020. The state previously said the reason why just 7.86% of contracts and purchase orders in fiscal 2020 went to minority and women-owned businesses was due to the pandemic, during which time former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo suspended the requirement to meet minimum standards for minority business contracting.

But previous data shows the state has only made good on its 1986 law twice – in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. 

“After six governors, absolutely nothing quantifiable has been done to improve the lives of Black and brown people in Rhode Island,” Lisa Ranglin, executive director for the Rhode Island Black Business Association, said in a statement. “The data we do have provides evidence consistent with a system hell-bent on upholding the pillars of systemic racism and a lack of commitment by state leaders to changing the outcomes of Black and brown Rhode Islanders.”

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A recent study commissioned by ODEO also found that the state statistically discriminated against minority-owned businesses, awarding contracts and purchase orders to them far less frequently then their availability within the state would suggest they could procure. While the report was commissioned to address long standing problems with compliance on minority business contracts, the estimated $500,000 cost and delayed release – eight months after it was finished-  also prompted criticism from Black business leaders.

Ranglin called the “lack of depth” in the study “unacceptable and reprehensible.”

In an emailed response, ODEO spokesman Derek Gomes said the review of the study “remains ongoing” and that the department “will continue to consult with and solicit feedback from stakeholders to determine what can be done to improve the MBE program, make it more accessible for the MBE community, and increase the utilization rate.”

Addressing the timing of the report, Gomes said that although a draft was completed in March, the state was working with its consultant to review and finalize the study prior to making it public in July.

Alongside its criticism, association expressed support for the recommendations made in the study, and offered up additional suggestions including better record-keeping of minority subcontractor information, which the report said the state had not tracked.

The association also called for creating a separate contract compliance office outside of state government to monitor and enforce state requirements.

“The real problem is there are so many moving parts to the state of Rhode Island’s procurement process that it is difficult to point the finger at a single person or source of the problem,” Casby Harrison, owner and litigator at Harrison Law Associates, said in a statement. “Without one general, one powerful person that can be held accountable for the program’s success, the program is doomed to failure and without a mandate from the top, there is no incentive to make the MBE program work.” 

The association in its statement did not address the efforts the state said it has already made to improve compliance the program, which allowed it to meet and exceed the 10% goal in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Ranglin did not respond to inquiries for additional comment.

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

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