The head of the consulting firm that offered the lowest bid on the City of Asheville’s recently-commissioned racial disparity study says he was told his company lost the contract “in part because we weren’t charging enough.”
It’s a curious disqualification considering that state law requires municipalities to accept the lowest “reasonable” bid in such situations.
The low bid on the analysis project came from Drakeford, Scott & Associates of Durham, whose submitted quote was $151,200. But the city hired BBC Research and Consulting of Denver, CO, to conduct the year-long examination of how it awards construction contracts. BBC has said it will do the work for $319,948 – which is more than double Drakeford, Scott’s price but in fact the second lowest price tag among the six companies who submitted bids.
Still, a bid that is $169,948 higher between lowest and next-lowest bids has left the folks at Drakeford, Scott nonplussed.
“After the contract was awarded, some folks from the city [Asheville] called us and we had about a thirty-minute conversation with them about their selection process,” Dr. Derrick Drakeford, CEO of Drakeford, Scott told us. “At one point they said they didn’t think we had understood their requirements or we wouldn’t have quoted so low,” Drakeford said.
“We’ve been in business successfully for 15 years,” Drakeford said. “We know how to read an RFP [request for proposal] and tailor a proposal to fit it. We can quote on disparity studies like the one Asheville wants for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars all day long and not shortchange ourselves,” he said.
“I was a little taken aback,” he said.
Of the remaining four companies’ quotes, three – MGT of America, of Tallahassee, FL; Mason Tillman Associates of Oakland, CA; and Griffin & Strong PC, of Atlanta – were clustered within $25,000 above BBC’s price. The high bidder, Miller3 Consulting, also of Atlanta, weighed in with a quote of $445,285.
Nevertheless, the announcement that BBC had been employed to do the study raised numerous eyebrows. Why, Ashevillians wanted to know, was the city hiring a nearly all-white company from what has been called one of the “10 least diverse cities“), 1300 miles away, to conduct a study of minority hiring practices in Asheville?
“We are not yet under contract, so I would encourage you to direct all of your questions to [city economic development specialist] Brenda Mills at the City of Asheville,” said Dr. Sameer Bawa of BBC Research and Consulting (the winning bid). So Asheville Unreported turned to the city.
The North Carolina Lawyer Factor
The only specific answer to questions about Asheville’s choice came through city communications specialist Polly McDaniel, who said BBC was chosen for its overall qualifications and also “as a plus, it utilized an attorney certified by the North Carolina Bar.” She did not indicate whether this meant BBC employed a North Carolina attorney in preparation of its proposal, or whether BBC retains a North Carolina law firm for use as needed.
“That seems odd,” Drakeford said. “Anyone who bid on this contract would have consulted a North Carolina law firm as part of its research. We’re a North Carolina company and two members of our management team are attorneys. The uncle of one of them is the current president of the North Carolina Bar Association.
“In all two state judges, a civil rights attorney and our own counsel reviewed our proposal before we submitted it,” he said.
Getting out the RFP
“The City listed this contract on its website, as well as the State of North Carolina Interactive Purchasing System’s website,” Sam Powers, the city’s Community and Economic Development Director told AU. “The City also marketed this contract through professional trade associations such as the Carolinas-Virginia Minority Supplier Diversity Council,.” he said.
Having posted its RFP online, the city then waited for responses. “[We] received the RFP through one of [our] RFP search engines,” said Dr. Fred Seamon of MGT, the Tallahassee-based bidder. “MGT`s interaction was limited to attendance at the pre-proposal conference and written responses to questions submitted by MGT during the Q and A period,” he said.
The conference Seamon was referring to was a meeting, held at City Hall, of representatives from the companies who responded to the RFP. According to Drakeford, “It’s purely optional. They’re required by law to hold it, but attendance isn’t mandatory,” he said. We didn’t go because by then we had studied the RFP very carefully and felt that we knew how to respond to it. “
It is not known which of the other four companies sent staff members to the pre-bid conference. The meeting was conducted by Mills, who is on vacation until June and not available for comment.
Why a new disparity study now? Or at all?
The city’s previous disparity study was conducted in 1993 by MGT of Tallahassee (one of the bidders) in collaboration with Research and Evaluation Associates of Chapel Hill. That study identified several shortcomings with regard to the awarding of contracts to minority-owned firms, as well as other race-based policy shortfalls. The report’s findings were largely responsible for the subsequent establishment of Asheville’s Minority Business Program (MBP), whose purpose is to help grow and nurture minority-owned companies.
But the Minority Business Program has had a rocky time of fulfilling its mission; local officials and observers have said it lacks focus. (It failed to file its required annual reports for the years 2009-2012 ) Absent MBP input the city appears to have been operating in a vacuum with regard to remedying its minority engagement shortcomings. Staffers have admitted the city does not track goals for awarding minority contracts.
Since millions of dollars’ worth of work will soon be up for grabs with the East of the Riverway Development Project, a new disparity study seemed urgently in order. Particularly since somebody noticed – and pointed out – the city’s abysmal minority hiring record.
In 2015 the city awarded some $$66 million in contracts, of which less than $1.8 million went to black, Hispanic, Native American and non-minority female vendors. Strictly construction contracts were even more starkly skewed:. A total of $251,790 was bestowed among Hispanic and Native American-owned companies and $337,580 to businesses owned by white females. A total of $260 (that’s two hundred and sixty dollars) went to black companies.
Clearly, the city felt, Something Should Be Done. There were those, however, who questioned whether a full-scale disparity study was either necessary or cost effective, given that much updated material could be obtained through such sources as Asheville’s African American Heritage Commission and the Dogwood Alliance.
One objector was city councilor Cecil Bothwell.
“I didn’t support contracting with anyone to do this study,” Bothwell told AU. “ I don’t recall the circumstances of whatever vote occurred – and if I voted “yes” for the concept I am quite certain I didn’t agree to the cost.
“I’d have much preferred to spend this kind of money on real work instead of another study of what sort of work we need to do.
“As for the [North Carolina] attorney question, ‘Well, duh?’ Bothwell said.