Virginia Beach proposes alternatives to disparity study; Bruce Smith responds

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The King Neptune sculpture at the Oceanfront.
The King Neptune sculpture at the Oceanfront. (Mariah Pohl)

Two months after businessman Bruce Smith called for Virginia Beach to conduct a disparity study that he would help pay for, city council is looking at how to move forward to address Smith’s concerns — but the city’s recommendation isn’t to conduct one.

The city’s director of finance Patricia Phillips and purchasing agent Taylor Adams presented the briefing to city council at its meeting Tuesday evening.

A disparity study is conducted in three phases, and the city recommends it move forward with only the first phase. Adams said an independent study would be a way to get an outside look at the Small, Women and Minority business program.

“Given the considerations, particularly those requiring us to satisfy race-neutral initiatives, before we consider race-conscious initiatives, at staff level we feel that this first phase … it’s a nice bite of the apple that would give us some data that we could give back to you and let you know just where we stand in the process,” Adams said.

In terms of small business procurement for city work, race-neutral initiatives do not give advantage to any person or contractor based on race. Conversely, race-conscious initiatives would intend to effect and improve minority group participation in procuring city contracts, according to Adams.

Under this plan, the city would only review its policies, procedures and programs.

Smith, a former star in the National Football League, was among those who gathered in the city council work session conference hall.

“This proposal of a half study is not acceptable. Even the city admits they don’t understand all the components and duties,” Smith said in an interview.  “We need a scientific, independent disparity study to help eliminate implicit bias and cronyism for minorities and women.”

The Small, Women and Minority business program has made strides in the city since it created the minority business council to track business expenditures and awards in 1995. Since then, it has set goals to use 50 percent of SWaM subcontractors on any subcontract work in city construction projects and hosted classes in recent years to educate those businesses on bidding for city work.

“The city spent $17. 4 million in Fiscal Year 16 with minority-owned businesses,” Phillips said. “[For] non-minority women, $19.3 million and service-disabled veterans [received $700,000]. This is a substantial increase over the prior year.”

If a disparity study is conducted, it could provide interest to create a race-based program, provided race-neutral measures have failed, the presentation states.

“Right now Virginia Beach is trying race-neutral and gender-neutral, but reaching out to small businesses in general,” Phillips said.

“If we’re to further this conversation, I’ve got to have some help,” Adams said.

Adams said he doesn’t understand how the Portsmouth and Hampton disparity studies came to the conclusions they did with the methodologies they used. Both cities are in the same metro area, yet produced varying goals.

Councilman Robert Dyer said this potential report has been years in the making.

“We’re at the point now where I would recommend an independent body come out and take a look, and do a critical analysis … but I wouldn’t want to take it to the point where it would even remotely trigger a type of situation that would result in set-asides,” Dyer said.

“I think some of the problems are beyond our control … We have to have discussion on this. Let’s put together a panel, a round-table discussion. Let’s bring the major players, the minority business council and other groups. But also, let’s put them together with Virginia Beach Vision and the Chamber of Commerce … also get universities involved.”

Vice Mayor Louis Jones said more information is needed at this point.

“There’s one thing that I didn’t pick up [in the presentation], and that’s how many minorities we have that participate in, say, our economic development incentive program, and other incentive opportunities we have available,” Jones said. “I’d like to see that. I think that’s important because it has an effect upon the ability of minority- and women-owned firms to actually get into the process and be able to bid and participate.”

Councilwoman Shannon Kane recognized the perception of city council held by the community.

“I’m pretty happy to see that when news comes out and we’re challenged to increase our percentages and take things a step further, it makes you kind of self reflect and go ‘are we really doing that bad?'” Kane said.

“We have various perceptions held by the community, and perception is the reality. I’d like to continue dialogues with Mr. Smith and others … I don’t want to lose to move any momentum that we have going forward, I don’t want to lose momentum that we’ve gained. But I don’t want to ignore the perception that is reality to some.”

 

No decisions have been made by the city at this point.