By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – A former Metro business development officer says the city’s purchasing agents and the Business Assistance Office (BAO) systematically excluded black contractors from doing business with the city.

“I thought they could be doing much better than they were doing, “ said John Irvin who worked in Nashville’s BAO from 2008-2013. Irvin created a diversity council for MWBE minority construction firms at Vanderbilt University before coming to work for Metro.  He was a senior buyer for General Motors and purchased goods from minority firms there. After spending two decades on diversity and inclusion efforts Irvin retired in 2013.  He now works out his frustrations on a golf course in Florida.

To improve diversity in awarding city contracts, Metro instituted the Procurement Nondiscrimination Program (PNP) in 2008 and the BAO was created to help small and minority businesses bid on city contracts or to bid as subcontractors with white prime contractors seeking city contracts.

Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage heads the contracts office. He has about a dozen buyers who develop Request for Proposals (RFPs) that specify the kind and amount of goods and services needed by various city departments. Under the city’s PNP program, prime contractors must make a good faith effort to include minority partners in their proposals.  But if they can’t find any, they can still be awarded the contract without them.

Until she was promoted last year, BAO Chief Michelle Hernandez-Lane was in charge of the city’s PNP She had a staff of four development officers like Irvin who said each member of the team handled about 100 contracts a year. Their job was to find, recruit, inform, and assist minority or small business owners respond to specific RFPs.

“We would let suppliers know we had a contract that fit the type of service that they offered.” said Irvin.  Copies of Metro’s RFPs are posted on line and sometimes Irvin would call minority suppliers and invite them to a RFP meeting.  Any supplier interested in bidding any job could come to a RFP meeting to meet with primes and ask department representatives about the contract requirements.

After the RFP meeting, prime contractors prepare written bids to provide goods or services at a certain cost for a specific period of time.  Proposals are supposed to include the name and services provided by minority subcontractors. The problem is that all too often they don’t.

“I thought there were businesses that could participate but when we placed the final contract you didn’t see minority, women-owned, or small businesses included,” Irvin said.

The program requires bids to include participation by minority or woman-owned or small business subcontractors. But if a prime shows it has reached out to at least three minority subcontractors and none chose to participate, then the requirement is waived, and primes are awarded the contract without minority participation.

“The rules of the game have handicapped her,” said Rob Horton. Horton worked for the airport, Metro schools, HCA, and the MTA as a diversity consultant. He spent eight years in Nashville before moving to St Louis to manage its inclusion program. He called Nashville’s two-tiered approach towards minority inclusion an oxymoron.

“As long as you contact some minority businesses then you go to the next level. If you do that and come up with nothing, you can still bid,” he said. “With those guidelines she has no hammer to lay down on anyone for not achieving Metro’s benchmark goals.”

Irvin said BAO staffers would do all the contract grunt work getting the paperwork collected and making sure all the requirements were met. They would write a summary of the proposals in contention for the contract. Then a decision would be made.

“That would be Michelle and Jeff Gossage, but the receiving department had to be in agreement with the decision,” said Irvin. He often thought the final outcomes could have gone another way. “I felt that if that program was really worked to the degree it was designed, it could have produced more inclusion than we were seeing,” he said.

Gossage and Lane did not respond to requests for comment on this story. However, the Tribune has obtained a copy of an email from Michelle Lane to minority businessman Alex Coure. Lane said the city has ordered an outside audit of the PNP.  Griffin and Strong performed the Metro diversity study in 2004 and they are writing the latest benchmark report.

Lane’s email said in part: “We feel that a review from a third party with the statistical and legal expertise necessary to analyze programmatic results is the most prudent route to meaningful outcomes.”

Coure’s response to her reads in part: “The actions you have outlined do little to address the specific incidents I have cited for the past four (4) years, nor the specific actions I have asked Mayor Barry to undertake to identify individuals, within Metro Government, and the businesses that willfully work to bypass/side-step Metro Nashville’s Procurement Non-discrimination Ordinance.”

Although the program was supposed to bring black businesses more work with the city, it has failed to meet its benchmarks every year. Critics of the PNP program say Metro officials are stiffing black entrepreneurs when it comes to awarding city contracts.

“The Nondiscrimination Procurement Program ain’t worth the ink that it’s written with,” said former Councilman Don Majors.

Next week: What’s Wrong With Metro’s Contracting Program?

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