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Cambridge Should Encourage Women and Minority-Led Bids for Government Contracts, City Committee Says

Cambridge City Hall sits on Massachusetts Avenue.
Cambridge City Hall sits on Massachusetts Avenue. By Steve S. Li
By Carrie Hsu and Christine Mui, Contributing Writers

Cambridge’s Economic Development and University Relations Committee passed a motion Thursday calling on the city to explore implementing a program that would encourage selecting bids from women- and minority-owned businesses for government contracts.

Women and minorities historically face steeper challenges when starting and running a business, Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon said during the committee’s public meeting. She pointed out that Cambridge has yet to take advantage of methods local municipalities can utilize to ease those challenges. Such initiatives include a sheltered market program like the one the committee eventually endorsed, grants, vendor fairs, technical support, and resource connection.

The sheltered market program would prioritize bids for city projects from businesses owned by people of color, women, and people with disabilities.

Still, the city may face some challenges implementing the program because of state laws requiring cities to award certain contracts to the “responsible and responsive” vendor offering the lowest price. For contracts between $10,000 to $50,000, cities must pick the cheapest vendor; for contracts totaling more than $50,000, they must take price into account during a competitive bidding process.

In order to follow those guidelines while also promoting WMBEs, Elizabeth Unger, purchasing agent for the City of Cambridge, said the city could consider using vendors certified by the Massachusetts Operational Services Division. Doing so would allow Cambridge to choose a contract based on a best-value evaluation instead of the lowest price, and therefore place higher value on vendors who have slightly higher costs but are minority- or women-owned.

Supporting more WMBEs would also rely on “a department making the conscious effort to reach out specifically to vendors that they knew were minority business enterprises, women business enterprises, and other disadvantaged vendors,” Unger said.

Pardis Saffari, senior economic development manager of Cambridge’s Community Development Department, said the city should pursue a variety of outreach initiatives aimed at diversifying its vendors. She cited solutions like targeted marketing to businesses in the city’s Diversity Directory, adding vendor questions to the Cambridge Business Certificate Application, and promoting online training programs on bidding.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Nicola Williams, facilitator of the Cambridge-Somerville Black Business Network, outlined a series of actions she hoped the city would take.

“The most important one is that we need data — we need to know what the percentage of contracts the city trades with, with MBEs. The state does it, the city of Boston does it, I don’t think Cambridge does it. And if we don’t have a way to measure it, how do we know how we’re doing?” she said.

Christina DiLisio, an associate economic development specialist, said the Community Development Department is working to present their backend data in the form of a searchable digital tool. The tool would complement a print Diversity Directory the city plans to release with Cambridge Local First by the end of the year.

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