By Bill Sumrall
Controversy erupted Tuesday among Alexandria city officials over a program to help businesses owned by minorities and women.
Accusations flew between Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy and Von Jennings, workforce development director, during the City Council’s “cost sharing agreement and emerging business” committee meeting Jan. 13.
Council member Edward Larvadain III chaired the committee to hear a report from the administration concerning the status of the AFEAT Program plus the status of the purchasing department including minority participation. AFEAT stands for Alexandria Fairness, Equality, Accessibility and Teamwork, a business program which was designed to bring in help minority and emerging business do business with the city.
Roy explained the difficulty of finding businesses that qualified under the program’s guidelines but that the figures he researched showed the city had 8.2 percent minority-owned businesses, though it could be less.
The city’s minority population stands at 54 percent, the mayor said.
Council president Myron Lawson also questioned the accuracy of the 8.2 percentage.
“This 8.2, I don’t think that is accurate,” Lawson said, adding he’d like to see supporting documentation.
Roy said that when he came into office two years ago, the figure he was given for minority-owned businesses was 3.9 percent, so in light of that number compared to what he calculated now, the program has made significant progress, but Roy admitted even the 3.9 percent figure might not be completely accurate.
However, Jennings contradicted Roy in her remarks, saying that from May 2007 to April 2008, the number of for-profit minority businesses stood at only 1 percent.
“I compiled these numbers off the same data (as the mayor),” Jennings said.
Jennings also complained about lack of support for her position from the mayor.
“I’ve even identified a pattern of behavior of retaliating against me whenever I expressed concerns” about the minority program, Jennings said.
Jennings said a policymaker’s policies can be understood by where they direct their money and that she was limited in what she could gather by lack of a budget and could only do things that didn’t cost money, such as outreach to minority businesses via the city’s Web site.
Jennings said 98 percent of the city’s business is directed toward “non-minority” owned businesses, while only 1 percent goes toward minority-owned businesses and one percent goes toward women-owned businesses.
Jennings said she was placed on administrative leave Dec. 23.
“There’s been a pattern of retaliation against me every time I’ve expressed concerns about this program, and it usually comes in the form of allegations that are unrelated to the concerns that I’ve expressed,” Jennings said.
“When I attempt to address those allegations and present evidence to the contrary, I’m not able to schedule a meeting, I’m ignored, and I’m not able to address the allegations or my original concerns (about the minority program),” Jennings said.
“I’m also accused of being disloyal to the mayor and to my position, and I want the governing body as well as the residents of Alexandria to know I was not being disloyal to the mayor or to anyone by expressing concerns about this program,” Jennings said. “I feel like it’s my obligation as a employee of the city of Alexandria and a resident to tell the truth, and I will continue to tell the truth regardless of the actions that are taken against me.”
The mayor responded that members of his administration have recommended to him that Jennings’ employment with the city be ended.
“I have defended Ms. Jennings at all turns. I’ve defended her intellect and her ability on these issues. Ms. Jennings chose to make these things public tonight. She’s on administrative leave right now. It has nothing to do with any recommendations from her about where the program was going or not,” Roy said.
“I disagree strongly with everything Ms. Jennings stated about how she’s been treated,” Roy said, emphasizing that his statement was for the record.
“I’ve personally, personally, have defended Von on every occasion to my staff when it was cited that there were issues, and that’s an important thing to note,” the mayor said.
“I can assure you and the public, African American, Caucasian, woman or male, that you will not only get the accurate information about this, you’ll see, in one quarter, what a good program we do and what a difference it will make to allow people to come to the table,” Roy said.
During the comment period, Sibal Holt, who identified herself as a black woman in an emerging business, said she is registered with the state and been here three years but has yet to be notified about anything the city offers for minority or women-owned companies.
“I have to think something is broken in the program,” said Holt, owner of S. Holt Construction, 1429 Third St.
Holt asked what if the racial numbers cited earlier during the meeting were reversed and more than 50 percent of the residents of the city were white yet less than 4 percent of the white majority number received contracts from the city?
Holt contended there would be no moral justification for that, either.
Holt urged a plan of action be created, not more study conducted, on the disparity problem.
“It’s easy to find out who’s an emerging business. They’re all registered with the state. It’s easy to find out how much money they’re making. They all have occupational licenses. It’s a matter of cross-checking. It’s a simple process. It doesn’t take years,” Holt said.
“And, in case you didn’t know, I am capable, I am able, I’m financed, I’m qualified and I’m ready,” Holt said.
Roy agreed with Holt.
“The bottom line is, we paid a staffer a salary to bring that information, and we’re having to create it now because it was never completed,” Roy said.
“That’s the bottom line, gentlemen, that’s the bottom line,” Roy added.
Larvadain ended further discussion by thanking the mayor and said the matter would be revisited on Feb. 10.
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