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Black Churches Assail Housing Authority Contracting Practices

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Pastors claim minority-owned businesses largely excluded from contracting opportunities

By Chris Levister –

The Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches (IECAAC) is asking the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to investigate the Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino (HACSB) alleging a pattern of excluding African American contractors, questionable bidding practices and misrepresentations regarding a San Bernardino rehabilitation project.

Pastor Owusu Hodari, chairman of the IECAAC’s Economic Development Committee, claims the publ ic agency, the largest provider of affordable housing in the county, engages in a pattern of arbitrary contracting procedures, allows too little time for response when bids are sought and tolerates a culture of ‘arbitrary contracting’ that has historically kept minority contractors from winning public works contracting opportunities.

“We have run out of options to correct what we believe to be a discriminatory injustice,” said Hodari.

As part of its mission to create jobs in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods, IECAAC together with Able Contracting submitted a bid for the renovation of a 9-unit apartment complex located at 1372 Wall Avenue in San Bernardino.

According to Hodari on December 19, 2011, as many as 10 contractors walked the Wall Ave. job site. He states contractors were told because the contract had to be awarded by the end of the year, all bids had to be turned in by 4:00 p.m. Wednesday, December 21, 2011.

He said contractors were given one day for questions and response by e-mail. IECAAC/Able Contracting turned in a detailed proposal addressing project specifications, labor and material costs.

“We pulled an all-nighter to get the bid in on time despite serious reservations about the scope of work including concerns over various appliances and other key items that are no longer available.”

Hodari said at 6:45 a.m. on January 25, 2012, he e-mailed HACSB Project Manager John Borgardt requesting an update on the project’s status.

E-mail records show an hour later Borgardt replied, “Sorry for the delay….the contract for the Wall Avenue project has not been awarded, our procurement department will be making the notifications in the near future.”

Hodari said at Borgardt’s direction, the same day, he called HACSB Procurement Director Marsha Zeller.

“She informed me that there were two bids. She said more than a week earlier, John Borgardt awarded the Wall Avenue contract to Vizion’s West Inc. of Winchester, California, (the lowest bidder).”

Hodari claims he showed Zeller, Borgardt’s contradicting e-mail and asked her to explain the discrepancy.

She responded, “I don’t know why he would tell you that.”

Hodari said Vizion’s submitted a 1 page bid containing about 5 sentences.

The Riverside County firm bid $213,191 compared to the $330,471 bid submitted by IECAAC/Able.

“They were the lowest bidder. We accept that,” said Hodari. “However we strongly object to how this process played out.”

Hodari said bidders are usually allowed 5 days to respond when there is a rapid response request.

“We were allowed 48 hours. Why was the contract award delayed until late January 2012 (without bidder notification)? Was Mr. Borgardt’s explanation of the bid status a slip of the computer mouse or subterfuge? A lump sum bid was allowed without specification in the RFP (request for proposal),” he said. “The market conditions must enable the assembly of a competitive slate of qualified bidders committed to the lump sum.”

“We believe that the rules of the game change to fit the predetermined desi res of the Housing Authority.”

In an interview, HACSB’s President/CEO Susan Benner and Chief Operating Officer, Gustav Joslin denied that the Wall Avenue bidding and contract administration was flawed.

“We considered both bids as responsive,” said Joslin. “Vizion’s’ West bid was substantially lower. We evaluated the contractor’s experience and qualifications and deemed that they were legitimate and capable of doing the project.”

“There is a big difference between the response to a bid and a responsible bid,” argues Hodari. “In a fair situation everyone would have to send in a “responsible” bid.”

Joslin said during a February meeting with Hodari, HACSB officials explained that if the agency can’t find anything materially incorrect with the bid or the contractor’s qualifications it generally must award the contract to the low bidder.

“This was clearly a low bid selection,” said Benner. “All parties met the same criteria so I’m not sure why he (Hodari) feels he was not given a fair opportunity.”

“As much as we’d love to support contractors and vendors from our county, because we use federal dollars we cannot do that legally. We have to give every taxpaying entity an opportunity to compete for that money,” she said.

“How do you get in the game when the rules keep changing,” Hodari countered likening the process to the comic strip “Peanuts” where Lucy always moves the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it.”

Joslin said the agency is committed to work with local community based organizations to increase access to contracting opportunities. He said he invited Hodari to discuss certification under the federal Section 3 program, a provision of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act of 1968 that helps foster local economic development, neighborhood economic improvement, and individual self-sufficiency.

The program requires that recipients of certain HUD financial assistance, to the greatest extent feasible, provide job training, employment , and contracting opportunities for low- or very-low income residents in connection with projects and activities in their neighborhoods.

Hodari said he is open to discussing Section 3 and other programs aimed at improving access to contracting, but insists such efforts often skirt more systemic problems.

“The construction industry is infected with the pathology of racism. This infection is chronic. Over the years, this infection has evolved under local and national laws. These laws have favored those who bring clout and dollars to the game.”

Hodari said he will file with the County Board of Supervisors a series of contracting complaints against HACSB. He said his goal is to bring to the table mission driven community organizations with local experience and laudable goals.

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