As the black owner of a small accounting firm, Deborah Morrisette could not compete for a financial services contract at the city-funded Crenshaw Shopping Plaza in South-Central Los Angeles.
Although she ran her own company for the last decade, the 1988 bid required at least five years of experience in the specialized field of mall financing, she said.
“Whenever (city officials) send me a bid, they disqualify me before I get in the door,” Morrisette said, referring to requirements in city contracts that often favor large, established companies.
On Friday, Morrisette was one of 250 minorities and women who attended a four-hour workshop at the Hyatt Wilshire Hotel to learn how to take advantage of business opportunities through the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
Like Morrisette, many of the participants shared stories of how they have been shut out of the city’s contracting process. They described the frustration of repeatedly getting lost in bureaucratic red tape of well-meaning programs while politically influential minorities, such as Bishop H.H. Brookins, receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in city contracts.
Morrisette called the city’s minority and women business enterprise program “reprehensible,” but said that she found the workshop helpful.
Victor A. Muniz, president of an asbestos removal firm, said in an interview that he lost a convention center contract because his company could not afford the bond insurance. “We basically have been frozen out,” he said. “If they don’t change the policy, all these breakfasts and luncheons are window dressing.”
The workshop was initiated by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who said Friday that she “targeted” the CRA after fielding numerous complaints from minorities and women who felt they were being excluded from the agency’s business.
Waters bluntly listed those complaints for CRA administrators Friday: The agency only cares about developing downtown while ignoring depressed areas such as Watts. It financed construction of the nation’s first enclosed shopping center in an inner-city community for builder Alexander Hagen, a white developer who was not required to share any of the construction project with minority firms. And the agency’s business seems to go to major companies with political connections.
But Waters also scolded the business leaders for not being persistent enough.
“I think the greatest problem is you don’t know how (the program) works,” she said. “You are not smart. You’ve got to follow the money. No more complaining about how they gave the money away to Alexander Hagen. Let’s pay attention. Let’s understand the mayor’s role and the City Council’s role. If you don’t know how it works, don’t come to me.”
Friday’s workshop was conducted to inform disadvantaged businesses how to obtain city contracts in construction, engineering, finance, law and other professional areas.
The city’s minority business program has come under fire recently after reports in The Times that lucrative contracts have been awarded to influential leaders instead of disadvantaged businesses as defined by the plan. In one case, a city audit found that a group of minority partners, including Brookins, the wife of House Ethics Committee Chairman Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles)and Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack, were paid $7.3 million in airport concessions contracts since 1985, though they did not invest their own money and did little or no work.
Airport concessionaires told a City Council committee hearing Thursday that Brookins’ interest in the partnership recently was bought out for an additional $130,000, and that the other minority partners now are actively participating in the business.
The minority and women entrepreneurs who attended Friday’s workshop were told by CRA official Freddi Condos that the agency awards “multimillion-dollar contracts and you should get a piece of the action. (But) we find that you don’t know how to do business with us.”
Many of the business leaders said they already had submitted their names to city agencies and had been certified as disadvantaged businesses. They said the problem rests with a city bureaucracy that fails to address their needs.
Grace Huth, who runs an import-export merchandise business, said she has tried for the last 12 years to land a concessions shop at the airport, but the city does not send her notices of bids. “There is nothing available,” she said.
Aleasta Newborn said her Computer Software Analysts Inc. has won aerospace contracts with major companies such as TRW and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory but can’t break through the logjam at City Hall. “We have tried several departments,” she said. “It’s just as well you don’t even bother.”
Ron Francis, owner of a small architectural and engineering firm, said he has been frustrated in his numerous attempts to get beyond a secretary or assistant at the CRA. “We’re here to find out who these people are, just as Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hagen knew who the people to contact were,” he said.
Of 10 minorities and women interviewed at the seminar about their attempts to get city business, only one had been successful.
Demille Jackson, 24, said his firm, Demille’s Car Cleaners, won a $200,000 contract to clean vehicles for the city’s Department of Water and Power. Asked how he obtained the contract, Jackson said: “Prayer.”
Several entrepreneurs claimed that they have sought advice from the Mayor’s Office of Small Business Assistance but were given no help.
“I tried working with the mayor’s office,” said Bradford Boston, a college instructor who owns Renaissance Design Group, an advertising graphic design shop. “Nothing has ever been done.”
Morrisette, whose Panorama City accounting firm has five subcontracting employees and did $300,000 a year in gross billings, said that two members on the mayor’s staff were unable to assist her on several matters.
“They were useless,” Morrisette said. “They had no expertise. They had no authority. They have nothing to say that we haven’t already heard.”
Wilfred Marshall, the mayor’s director of small business, told the workshop that his office has nine staffers who are available to help steer minorities and women to hundreds of contracts offered by 36 city agencies. But Marshall warned that some businesses have to push harder for the opportunity.
“If you are not willing to come in and spend the time to exploit the system, you will not get (city business),” he said.