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Board to Study How Cook County Awards Contracts to Women and Minorities

Dec. 24, 2008 – Looking to save money and increase efficiency in the way minority and women-owned businesses secure contracts, Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth “Liz” Doody Gorman (17th) proposed eliminating a county department earlier this month.

Gorman’s move to approve two ordinance amendments that would eliminate the county’s Department of Contract Compliance elicited a request for a roll call vote from Commissioner William Beavers (4th), and later in the board meeting Gorman agreed to send her proposals to a committee for further study.

The Cook Country Department of Contract Compliance certifies Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MBE/WBEs) and ensures all county purchases meet the county’s requirements on working with MBE/WBEs.

Gorman’s proposal would have made the county’s purchasing agent assume the office, duties and staff of the Department of Contract Compliance.

“That’s like having the fox watching the chicken,” Commissioner Earlean Collins (1st) said during the Dec. 3rd meeting. “I’m sure no one is thinking about what it does. There are questions.”

Cook County has a long history of struggling to meet its goals in awarding contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses.

In 1988, the county adopted its MBE/WBE ordinance to ensure “full and equitable participation.” The board amended it in 1993 to set specific participation goals in construction contracts, and in 2001,  the ordinance was declared unconstitutional.

After the amendment on construction contracts was declared unconstitutional, there was a drastic drop in the number of MBE/WBE contracts, leading commissioners to order a review of the bidding processes in 2005.

The results of that review were presented in July 2006 in a report that showed “extensive evidence of discrimination” in the awarding of construction contracts, causing the board to re-vamp the process.

As part of a November 2006 ordinance, the Office of Contract Compliance was directed to oversee the process, with its director reporting to the board president.

At this month’s meeting, Commissioner Mike Quigley (10th) suggested Gorman’s proposals be sent to the Contract Compliance Committee, leading Gorman to withdraw her motions before a vote was taken.

“I was trying to get the pulse of the board,” Gorman told her fellow commissioners. “My intent is to keep opportunities alive for minorities and women, but to make it fair and equitable.”

Quigley said while “there’s some need for consolidation in the county,” he warned that incorporating one department into another doesn’t necessarily reduce the size of government. He said the commissioners “might do this if the board can save time and money.”

After the meeting, Gorman said she wants to “streamline” the process and save the county money. She’s not sure exactly how much money such a change could mean for the county’s financially strapped budget.

Gorman pointed to other government entities, including the city of Chicago and Orange County, Calif., which have one department performing the functions of both the Office of Contract Compliance and the Office of the Purchasing Agent.

“There are many errors that occur with the contract compliance offices,” Gorman said. “The vendors get qualified, and they’re not able to get the business they should. It ends up costing us money.”

She defended her proposals, saying they would actually create more opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.

“We’re not looking to hurt women or minority businesses, we’re looking to help them – to get them business, to get them the opportunities,” said Gorman, who called her proposals a “positive change.”

Betty Hancock Perry, the director of the Office of Contract Compliance, did not respond to requests for comment on possible changes to her department.

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