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.
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 a city agency 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.
Pinela, for one, is enthusiastic about the change. "This is something that is really good for the Hispanic minority," he says. "For the longest time, we've been excluded from city business."
And yet there's a bit of irony in Slay's decision to put the consolidated certification program under Griggs, a public official who has previously taken his lumps for giving too little business to minority-owned firms. The city of St. Louis follows a "short-listing" process for awarding contracts. Instead of seeking bids from everyone who can provide the needed service or product, the city asks three to five companies to provide bids. At the airport, Griggs traditionally decides who to ask for bids and then a committee appointed by the president of the Board of Public Service picks the winner from among those bidders. Hence, critics say, it helps to be someone Griggs knows and likes.
The Bosley administration claimed Griggs' choices were consistently too narrow. As part of its lengthy struggle to wrest control of airport contracting from Griggs, the Bosley administration put Kwame Building Group into position at the airport to serve as its eyes and ears.
That move led to a series of Post-Dispatch articles by reporter Carolyn Tuft that characterized the contract to Kwame as "cronyism." The articles and editorials, which painted a picture of a seemingly corrupt administration, paved the way for Bosley's loss in 1997 to Harmon. In that instance, Griggs emerged a winner, coming out of Bosley's defeat with uncontested control of airport contracts.
Earlier this year, another Post series, again by Tuft, reported Bosley and Person's involvement in United Materials, a concrete contracting firm whose application for city certification was pending. Slay responded to the Post coverage by promising a close look at the city program. Now, with Slay's reorganization, Griggs again appears to be a winner, as his influence spreads beyond the airport into all city contracts.
And what about Green, a local legend for his flamboyant 1960s protests that included scaling the Arch and unmasking the Veiled Prophet? Geisman says that Green would still have a job if he "had spent more time focused on certification business and less on other things."
Why some of that time couldn't have been spent discussing problems with the program with the mayor is unclear. Green says he asked Slay for a meeting, but the mayor directed him to instead speak with Geisman and SLDC executive director Phil Hoge.
"I felt Slay would give me an opportunity to share with him exactly what was handicapping the program," Green says. "I never met with him face-to-face."