No Mercy for Percy

The mayor answers critics by giving Green the boot

For months, Percy Green tried to figure out where his new boss stood. Was Francis Slay the sort of mayor who'd answer critics of the city's controversial minority-certification program by gutting it? Or would the mayor put his considerable political capital behind Green, the local civil-rights icon who'd been in charge of the program since 1993?

Green got his answer last week. He was canned, although at a press conference to announce the shake-up, Slay seemed confused about the firing. The mayor inexplicably told reporters Green still had a job with the city, but then was forced to correct himself after deputy mayor Barb Geisman told him that Green actually had been laid off that morning, along with five others on Green's staff.

Slay is the third city mayor who's been forced to wrestle with complaints about the controversial certification program. Green had viewed his charge as protecting the city from spending allocated funds on illegitimate "fronts" -- businesses that claimed to be owned by women or minorities but were actually controlled by white men. It's a critical responsibility, given that the city has a goal of sending 25 percent of its business to minority-owned firms and 5 percent to companies owned by women. To make sure companies that participate are legitimate, Green and his small staff demanded detailed records that outlined equity interests, leases, equipment purchases and staff employment, among other information. For applicants, many of whom were small-business owners, the process seemed cumbersome, invasive and slow.

Percy Green
Jennifer Silverberg
Percy Green

The administration of Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. had heard complaints about the program as early as 1993, says Tim Person, a former Bosley aide. "In 1995, we split up certification and contract monitoring to try to speed up the process," Person says. Certification became Green's responsibility and monitoring was assigned to Jack Thomas, who now oversees minority certification and monitoring at Lambert Field. "We also engaged in discussions with Bi-State and the Minority Business Council about having one common certification form [and accepting each other's certifications]," Person says. However, complaints continued to pile up. In August 2000, Bosley's successor, Clarence Harmon, ordered the city to accept certifications by other agencies -- a move Green bitterly opposed as a surrender to front companies. Green's supporters tried for months to get the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to cover the policy change, but had no luck.

Despite Harmon's move, resentment of the city's program continued to grow even after Slay replaced him. Among the most recent critics to pile on was the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents a small, but growing segment of the city's diversifying business base. Earlier this year, Gilberto Pinela, the chamber's president, joined with other Hispanic businessmen in accusing Green of deliberately putting obstacles in the way of non-black minorities and called for Green's ouster [Downs, "Certifiably Mad," RFT, April 25]. Green strongly disputed the criticisms, but political heat already had been growing after the city was tagged not once, but twice, by judges who ruled that Green's office erred by refusing to certify legitimate minority businesses.

Slay last week said he heard the critics' concerns. "I have received lots of complaints about the certification process, and these have included complaints from women and minority contractors." Those included complaints that the city's certification process was too slow -- companies were being told that it would be at least a year before their applications could be processed -- and complaints that every contracting agency had its own application and certification process. The city had one process. The airport ó a city agency ó had another. Bi-State Development Agency had a third, and so on.

Under Slay's reorganization, responsibility for certifying minority- and women-owned companies now belongs with airport director, Col. Leonard Griggs. The goal, Slay said, is to streamline the certification process. Consolidating the city and the airport programs into one should, theoretically, reduce costs for both businesses and the city by reducing the duplication of staff time that two applications and review processes required. Slay had two options for consolidation: putting the larger program at either the airport or the St. Louis Development Corp.

Slay insisted that the decision to give the program to the airport came only after an evaluation of both certification processes. "There was less of a backlog at the airport, and we were more confident with the airport's process," he said. And Geisman suggests that future applicants will be treated in a more customer-friendly manner. When people apply for certification, "they deserve to be treated with respect," Geisman says. "Their applications should be handled with efficiency and with a minimum of bureaucratic red tape."

Green angrily insists the move will weaken certification and open "the floodgates for front companies." He points to the fact that some businesses his office refused to certify were approved by other agencies. But Green's viewpoint is clearly a minority opinion.

At the press conference to announce the reorganization, Slay was flanked by 28 business and community leaders, including Pinela and fellow Hispanic Chamber board member Sergio Cuevas. Among others standing with Slay were John Bordeaux, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the NAACP; Eddie Hasan, executive director of MOKAN, an organization of minority contractors; Rev. Earl Nance Jr., representing the St. Louis Clergy Coalition; Jan Scott of the Women's Yellow Pages; Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis; and Dennis Lavallee, executive director of the St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers, which represents such major local companies as Anheuser-Busch, Solutia and BJC.

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