When Jennifer Carroll was Florida’s lieutenant governor, she arranged for me to meet with Florida Department of Transportation engineers to talk about lighting.
I had just gotten into the LED lighting business and wanted to sell FDOT LED street lights to improve lighting on Florida’s Turnpike and on state roads.
My lights meet every FDOT LED standard, including luminosity, color temperature, price and warranty. I even told FDOT engineers to compare my product with Sylvania, Cree, Westinghouse, General Electric and other lighting biggies.
After that meeting, you know what happened to Carroll. She quit and the FDOT split. I never heard a single word from FDOT since.
Today, many of Florida’s minority-owned business owners are up in arms about the way FDOT is using “government magic” to keep qualified black and other minority businesses from participating in purchasing contracts at the huge state agency with a budget of more than $9 billion.
What is FDOT doing about this entrepreneurial unrest? Well, FDOT doesn’t have much money to spend with blacks but they have a ton of dollars to spend setting up a series of “listening sessions” across the state so business people can tell FDOT what DOT already knows: It is difficult or impossible to get a business contract from FDOT.
In the two-month statewide series of listening sessions, every other week for two months FDOT has been holding public meetings to “gauge the success and concerns from small business owners” throughout Florida in five locations across the State, including one that took place in Miami on Monday.
FDOT buys all kinds of stuff, like other agencies, but they want you to think they only contract with road builders and bridge builders. But whatever they buy, there are some black businesses that can sell it to them.
Over 150 professionals attended a recent “listening session” in the Tampa FDOT District 7. African-American business owners at the meeting provided comments on their FDOT interaction, including disappointment with both the processes and the opportunities. Two prominent African-American organizations provided detailed comments of the experiences of African Americans dealing with FDOT.
Paul Curtis, past public relations chairman for the Southeast, Region 3, of the National Society of Black Engineers and current member of the Transportation Research Board appointee’s Disadvantage Business Enterprise Committee, and Joe Robinson of the Tampa NAACP provided extensive and captivating comments.
“The agency’s failure to conduct an ethnic, race and gender disparity study for more than a decade has injured African-American businesses and unjustly enriched other groups,” Curtis said.
Curtis also warned that a preliminary review demonstrates that the agency may arbitrarily alter contractors selection criteria in FDOT projects from project to project and from district to district.
“This affects the outcome of the vendor selections. This allows some firms to get repeat no-bid contracts back-to-back> This is the exact opposite of what the federal law dealing with disadvantaged and minority businesses intended. I view this as the same thing as steering a certain contract to a certain firm. What FDOT is doing is the cousin of ‘bid-rigging,’” Curtis said.
“The agency has long known American [white] women are being over-utilized, perhaps at the expense of African Americans, and a proper remedy is long past due,” said the NAACP’s Robinson, an attorney. “NAACP legal teams are working on this matter and an appropriate legal action is forthcoming.”
Robinson produced documentation in support of his complaints, including a recent Georgia disparity study and procurement reports from the FDOT.
Robinson’s documents reportedly demonstrated the dearth of African-American utilization and federal rules from the Federal Highway Administration that demonstrate Florida’s ability to solve specific under-utilization problems without federal approval.
Eeven if you say you can compete with any company, FDOT, in order to get you to not bid on jobs, will tell you since you’re black you have to register as a DBE and become certified. The agency will guarantee you have to register but, if you register, it will give you no guarantee that you’ll get a contract.
Is the FDOT the MBE’s economic enemy? Time will tell.
Lucius Gantt, a political consultant based in Tallahassee, is author of the book Beast Too: Dead Man Writing which is available at Amazon.com. You can like The Gantt Report page on Facebook and contact Gantt at www.allworldconsultants.net