Houston: ‘Last Urban County’ Without M/WBE Program Joins the Diversity Train
Feature Photo: Colette Holt, M/WBE attorney, speaking via virtual meeting to the Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Houston (Harris County) — It’s been a long time coming, maybe too long, but Harris County Commissioners Court has gotten serious about establishing a robust Minority/Women Business Enterprises diversity program for county contracts.
San Antonio-based Colette Holt & Associates, on Tuesday, delivered the cringe-worthy results of a diversity study that was long advocated for by Commissioner Rodney Ellis. Holt analyzed county purchasing data on dollars spent from 2016-2019.
Holt, an attorney specializing in M/WBE law, found that while only 9.1% of funds spent went to minority/women businesses, there is an availability of 28.4% minority/women businesses in Harris County.
Percentage of M/WBE utilization in Harris County contracts.
The disparity ratio (minority/women businesses divided by availability) is 32% minority/women businesses to 126.8% non-M/WBEs.
Ellis asked Holt how Harris County compares to other large government agencies. She said a study of construction contract awards done for the city of Houston found about 30% of contract awards go to M/WBEs, and the percent of contract funds are similar for Travis County. She added that for the Texas Department of Transportation, the M/WBE share is about 14%, but she noted that TxDOT contracts tend to be for very large projects, a limiting factor in getting work to minority-owned companies.
“I’m embarrassed by these numbers, particularly the .5% for African-Americans,” Ellis said. The former state senator said he thought Harris County was the last urban county in the nation to step into this space.
“The only good thing about coming so late into this is we do have the benefit of other people’s successes and their mistakes,” Ellis said.
Ellis made a motion that the commission proceed immediately toward creating a countywide M/WBE program, based on Holt’s recommendations. Her recommendations included that the office be able to report directly the Commissioners Court; that it coordinate its process with an existing M/WBE local agency to encourage uniformity of process across local governments; and that the program adhere closely to legal counsel.
Local government M/WBE diversity programs have historically been aggressively challenged in court by large national private interests, and Holt emphasized the importance of setting up a program that could withstand such challenges.
The commissioners directed staff to assign a purchasing agent work with Colette Holt to develop the framework for an M/WBE program, and related programs for Harris County procurement and contracting.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia attached a qualifier to Ellis’ comments, noting that in 2007 the Commissioners Court created an M/WBE program but it was limited in scope to Harris County Transit, where it was required by federal law; the Federal Transit Administration demands the setting of M/WBE goals where federal funds given to local transit authorities.
Garcia requested, and Ellis agreed that the motion should include an audit by the purchasing department to provide an estimate of how much federal funding may have been lost over the past 13 years because of how the program was used.
“I’m just bothered that we had an opportunity to do something great in 2007 and we chose to turn our back on it,” Garcia said.
County Auditor Mike Post estimated he could have a report ready in three weeks.
Holt’s study did not take into the county hospital, however, Ellis took notice of that. Ellis said he would be campaigning to get the Harris Health System to do a diversity study and also implement an M/WBE program.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Rodney Ellis led the effort to examine the county’s lack of diversity in contract awards.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.