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Letter: R.I. minority business contract program violates Title VI anti-discrimination law

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Letter: R.I. minority business contract program violates Title VI anti-discrimination law

Sep 18, 2023 | 6:38 pm ET
By Nancy Lavin
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Letter: R.I. minority business contract program violates Title VI anti-discrimination law
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Rhode Island Black Business Association CEO and President Lisa Ranglin, pictured in 2020 on Mathewson Street in Providence, reached out to a Boston legal nonprofit to take up the association's fight to get Rhode Island to uphold the law when no local attorneys would help. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Rhode Island has violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to improve access to and participation in its minority-business contracting program, advocates say.

In a Sept. 18 letter shared with Rhode Island Current, the Rhode Island Black Business Association (RIBBA) and Lawyers for Civil Rights accuse the state of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by “consistently underutilizing” women and minority-owned businesses for state contracts and purchases. 

The letter addressed to Gov. Dan McKee, Department of Administration Director Jonathan Womer and Tomas Avila, associate director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity urges the state to rectify these disparities to “avoid legal liability,” although it does not threaten specific legal action.

It’s too early to say when or if the groups plan to file a Title VI complaint against the state, Tasheena Davis, litigation fellow with the Boston-based nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Monday. 

“The goal is really to get businesses to feel they can participate,” said RIBBA CEO and President Lisa Ranglin. “We’re not trying to sue the state.”

Minority business advocates call for reforms to troubled MBE program

The letter comes amid mounting frustrations with the troubled minority business contracting program. Since the law was passed in 1986 mandating 10% of state contract and purchase dollars go to women or minority-owned businesses, the state has only met or exceeded that goal three times: in fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2022.

Calls for reform intensified after a state-commissioned study published in 2021 laid bare the evidence: The state statistically discriminated against minority-owned businesses by awarding contracts and purchase orders to them far less frequently than their availability within the state would suggest they could procure.

The report outlined a host of ways to improve the program, but the letter contends most of those suggestions have gone ignored by state officials. 

“Numerous steps – both race-neutral and race-conscious – are available to the State that would break down exclusionary barriers and reduce these disparities,” the letter stated. “The State has simply chosen not to take them. For the same reason, it is plain that less discriminatory alternatives to the State’s current contracting system exist.”

The letter reiterates several of the recommended fixes, including better data collection, stronger enforcement against contractors that don’t follow the rules, improved outreach and training to women and minority-owned businesses on how to become certified and bid on state projects, and more funding for “historically marginalized” business owners.

The goal is really to get businesses to feel they can participate. We’re not trying to sue the state.

– RIBBA CEO and President Lisa Ranglin

The letter stops short of threatening a federal complaint against Rhode Island, at least by the signatories. However, it notes that as a recipient of U.S. Department of Justice funding, Rhode Island is subject to federal anti-discrimination laws and is legally liable if it fails to follow them.

Prompted by Boston complaint

Lawyers for Civil Rights has filed a Title VI complaint against Boston’s Planning and Development Agency in 2020, alleging the agency failed to reach out to and gather feedback from non-English speakers on the redevelopment of former horse racetrack Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

It was this lawsuit that spurred Ranglin to reach out to the Boston nonprofit, seeking lawyers to take up RIBBA’s cause after failing to find any attorneys in Rhode Island “even willing to listen to us,” Ranglin said.

More recent problems with a $3 million state minority business accelerator program further motivated Ranglin to get lawyers involved. The program, run through Rhode Island Commerce based on funding in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget, has not achieved what it was intended to do, since most of the money was doled out to organizations not specifically dedicated to minority business advocacy and support, Ranglin alleged.

“That is called pimping out our community,” Ranglin said. 

A spokesperson for Rhode Island Commerce did not immediately return requests for comment on Ranglin’s accusations.

Beyond protecting itself against lawsuits, Rhode Island also stands to benefit economically from helping women and minority-owned businesses succeed, the letter states.

“Utilizing M/WBEs to assist with projects in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods creates benefits that are twofold: addressing poverty for historically marginalized families and addressing barriers to entry that plague minority-owned businesses,” the letter stated.

The letter requests a meeting with state officials to discuss “legal and policy solutions in greater detail.” 

Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Administration, said in an emailed response Monday that the department is “taking significant steps” to improve minority and women-business contracting. She pointed to the increase in mandated participation (from 10% to 15% of dollars awarded) approved in the fiscal 2024 budget, new software to track contracts, and McKee’s request for a new disparity study every five years, starting in 2025, as evidence of progress.

The data used in the disparity study does not reflect the latest efforts of the department, which achieved 13% MBE/WBE awards in 2022,” Hart stated. “Historical data shows significant improvement in the equitable awarding of state contracts over the years.”

The study, though published in 2021, reflects data from 2014 to 2017.

McKee’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.