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County needs to salvage troubled minority business program

Sunday, June 05, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Mike Quigley

I read with interest your editorial about the most recent controversy to plague Cook County's troubled minority/women-owned business enterprise (MBE/WBE) program ("County set-aside program requires adequate scrutiny…" May 27).

This latest calamity involves the county's ongoing business with Faustech, a company recently kicked out of the City of Chicago's MBE/WBE program and, as it turns out, a company that no longer exists. This development only further tarnishes Cook County's already beleaguered Contract Compliance Department — the same department that just discovered that the CEO of a woman-owned business with a multi-million dollar county subcontract passed away more than a year ago.

While the county's MBE/WBE program was established with noble goals, the system has recently proven to be rife with abuse. Yet the need for such a program still exists, as evidenced by the persistent under-representation of minority- and women-owned businesses doing business with the county. The critical question is how to salvage the effective parts of the program, reform and monitor the rest, and ultimately restore the public's confidence in the worthy mission of the program.

To that end, I have introduced a resolution before the county board that I believe would be a step in the right direction. First, the certified MBE/WBEs currently in the program should be re-evaluated and their legitimacy confirmed. As the Better Government Association rightly observed at a recent hearing on the matter, such an audit should be conducted by an outside entity, as internal controls either do not exist, or are not being adequately executed by our Contract Compliance Department.

Second, the Contract Compliance Department should be revamped in such a way that political pressures are eliminated from the process. My resolution calls for outsourcing the department's responsibility for MBE/WBE business certification, a process which — over the last few months in particular — has been shown to be overtly political. This will remove the pressures associated with allowing or disallowing politically onnected firms from obtaining county contracts and it would free up county resources for more thorough and frequent investigations. It would also enable the Contract Compliance Department to focus their efforts on outreach and education for minority and women entrepreneurs.

There are precedents for such a step. Maricopa County, Ariz., for example, does not conduct its own certification process. Instead, they accept the certification of either the city of Phoenix or the non-profit National Minority Business Development Council's local affiliate. In Texas, Dallas, Fort Worth and Dallas County entered into a cooperative agreement with six other entities to form the North Central Texas Regional Certification Agency. This non-profit agency certifies MBE/WBEs and disadvantaged businesses for a 16-county region. These types of cooperative efforts place certification in the control of neutral parties and result in a more streamlined, efficient certification process.

The measures I've proposed would increase legitimate MBE/WBE participation at the county level and save taxpayer dollars by fostering competition for county business.

Even the toughest legislation in the world is only as good as the elected officials charged with overseeing the process. While a stringent certification and enforcement process would represent great progress, it will always remain the responsibility of the Commissioners to be vigilant in ensuring that employees are acting in concert with the spirit of the law — even when it's politically unpopular. If we as a board want our Contract Compliance Department to eliminate political considerations from their actions, as elected officials, we must set the example for them and vote and act accordingly.

Mike Quigley is the Cook County commissioner from the 10th District.

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