NEW ORLEANS — Echoing more controversial comments made exactly 15 years ago in the infamous Chocolate City Speech by former Mayor Ray Nagin, Mayor LaToya Cantrell seized on the symbolism of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to announce new efforts to expand access to public contracts for disadvantaged businesses.
“This community remains an Afrocentric community,” Cantrell said, offering her words of encouragement in a far less polarizing context than when Nagin promised on Martin Luther King Day 2006 that a New Orleans emerging from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation “will be chocolate at the end of the day.”
“The most Afrocentric city in the United States of America is the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell continued. “And that is why we're doing this work, to ensure that everyone has their fair shake and opportunity in this city.”
The work she referred to is revamping the Office of Supplier Diversity, which supports disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs, to make sure they receive at least 35 percent of city contracts, in accordance with a charter provision enacted in 2014.
Cantrell said she has moved the office under direct control of the city’s chief financial officer and combined its computer system with that of the city’s procurement office. CFO Norman White said the city’s computerized system for tracking payments to DBE subcontractors is now consolidated with the city’s procurement and financial budgeting systems.
A web-based portal now allows prime contractors and subcontractors to follow progress with payments – from the city to the contractor and from the contractor to the DBEs – to avoid long-reported issues with smaller, minority-owned firms having to wait months or longer for crucial payments.
“Now, we'll begin to look at and evaluate: does it actually represent that 35 percent and the performance of those work activities?” White said.
But these same issues of DBE compliance have plagued the city’s contracting system for years. Throughout his tenure, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu promised to make sure minority and women-owned businesses got at least 35 percent of city contracts. He started with an overhaul of the Office of Supplier Diversity during the early days of his administration in 2010, right after taking over for Nagin, who had let the office languish.
“Now we award contracts based on what you know, not who you know, and guess what, everyone gets a fair shake,” Landrieu boasted at his 2013 State of the City address.
But a WWL-TV investigation found DBEs kept getting cut out of work in favor of larger, White-owned firms.
The City Council responded in 2014 by emblazoning the 35-percent DBE goal in the City Charter. And Landrieu announced a new computerized tracking system in December 2015, which was designed to track payments and make sure prime contractors were paying DBEs their fair share.
And near the end of Landrieu’s eight years in office, it appeared the systemic improvements had worked. The percentage of city contract payments going to Black- and women-owned businesses jumped from 16 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2017, according to a Keen Independent Research study commissioned by Landrieu.
WWL-TV asked Cantrell how her new efforts are different from what Landrieu implemented, and she and White blasted their predecessors.
“It's different because that didn't exist, what you're talking about in practice did not exist,” Cantrell said. “It did not function. No, it did not function the way that you are describing. And one of the reasons why, because our financial systems were not even talking.”
“And to be brutally honest, it was more of a gesture than it was reality,” White said about the Landrieu upgrades.
Ryan Berni, a spokesman for the former mayor, said the Landrieu administration was proud of rising DBE participation and a reduction in the time to process DBE certification for businesses from an average of 730 days to just 15 days.
“We're proud of the major improvements made which resulted in new opportunities for hundreds of small businesses, new generational wealth for Black business owners and robust DBE participation on major projects like the new airport,” Berni said.
He also welcomed any improvements Cantrell can add: “Like anything else, improvements are welcomed and should be applauded. The hardworking people of New Orleans deserve no less than true equity."