Cleveland disparity study too important for recycling: editorial
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Revelations that a $750,000 consultant study on persistent discrimination against minority- and female-owned businesses in Cleveland was, at least in part, a clip-and-paste job from other reports are distressing on so many levels.
Start with the quality of the work itself. As doggedly reported by The Plain Dealer's Leila Atassi, it appears that Austin-based NERA Economic Consulting dropped analysis and recommendations from so-called disparity studies prepared for other communities into the report it delivered to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's administration this year. There's even a reference to the "Houston market area" in a section where the authors supposedly were discussing Cleveland.
In addition, rather than conduct new surveys, the firm relied on data gathered from minority and women business owners for a 2010 report commissioned -- and separately paid for -- by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
That's a lot of tax dollars -- and more than two years of preparation -- for some slickly packaged recycling.
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City Hall ordered up the study to track how historically disadvantaged businesses are faring in the city, but also as an insurance policy. Since 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a quota plan for minority contractors in Richmond, Va., because the city had no empirical evidence of past discrimination, governments committed to affirmative action regularly must collect such documentation as a hedge against lawsuits.
Over time, a handful of consulting companies -- NERA among them -- have come to specialize in preparing these reports. They sell clients on a track record of gathering and presenting evidence in ways that satisfy regulators and stand up in court. NERA's Jon Wainwright defended his firm's reheated analysis in the Cleveland report by telling Atassi, "this uniform template is one of the reasons that NERA's disparity studies have consistently withstood legal challenge."
Though skeptics will now comb the firm's work far more closely, its reputation was one reason that the city's Office of Equal Opportunity sought to hire NERA without getting bids. The firm also offered to cut its price significantly if it could re-use data from the sewer district study. Ironically, one of NERA's competitors was ruled out by the city because its last work here used outdated statistics. In August 2009, City Council approved the no-bid NERA deal.
Jackson needs to ask his staff -- beginning with equal opportunity chief Natoya Walker-Minor, whose work was praised by Wainwright in testimony before City Council prior to Atassi's stories -- some tough questions about their oversight during the study and why it took a reporter to notice the reference to Houston.
Did anyone at City Hall bother to read it?
But even if heads roll, NERA offers a refund and future disparity studies are beyond reproach, immense damage has been done.
Firms owned by women and minorities in Cleveland still face significant obstacles to success, and it's serious business. The most enlightened firms in the private sector know it. They also know inclusion is good for the bottom line and for the social fabric of the community. That's why they continue to look for ways to expand their vendor base.
The fiasco around this study -- like previous abuse of minority fronts -- feeds cynicism, erodes trust and impedes equity.