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MSD plans study on its minority hiring practices, delays interim changes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2012 - After the agency's executive director asked for more time, the Metropolitan Sewer District's Board of Trustees decided today to hold off on changes to its minority-hiring policies.

In recent months MSD's minority hiring policies have come under renewed scrutiny, especially after the agency announced last year it would undertake a $4.7 billion plan to settle a federal lawsuit. Jeff Theerman, the agency's executive director, said at a January board meeting that MSD would launch a disparity study and make interim changes to current policies.

While the board is poised to approve a measure launching a disparity study on Thursday, Theerman told board members Tuesday that after discussion with stakeholders -- including Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the St. Louis branch of the NAACP -- it would be prudent to wait a month before going forward with the interim changes.

"I want to make good on what I said at the last meeting," said Theerman. "And the last thing I wanted to do is give the perception that this is stalling or we're not honoring what we said. I am sensitive to that."

The decision to launch a disparity study and establish interim policies came after a resolution failed in December. It stipulated that MSD's contracts worth at least $50,000 had to include 25 percent for minority-owned businesses and 5 percent for women-owned businesses. It also would have set goals of 25 percent minority and 6.9 percent women on construction projects greater than $50,000, as well as workforce targets of 25 percent minority and 5 percent women on professional services contracts greater than $50,000.

Pruitt, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said in an interview that more time was needed to make sure that the interim policies were adequate. The St. Louis branch of the NAACP had threatened to boycott St. Louis and St. Louis County if MSD didn't make major changes to its minority contracting and workforce policies.

Claude Brown -- a former local NAACP president brought in to facilitate the situation -- said there would be a push for a "comprehensive approach" to the agency's minority hiring and workforce policies, as well as training programs. Some organized labor groups had expressed concern about changing the policies without going through with a disparity study.

"You've got to get people to sign off on that," Brown said. "You've got to get the unions that are involved. You've got to get the minority groups involved. [And you've] got to understand that it's a collaborative effort. It's not a 'we versus them' effort. And I think that MSD understands that."

Asked whether a boycott was still on the horizon, Pruitt said, "Just like they're moving to take the steps necessary to establish interim goals, we're taking the steps necessary to put a boycott in place. Hopefully before we all reach our final destination, we find something we agree on. Our deadline is April. It seems to me their deadline is March. We'll see what happens."

Slay Offers Support

Meanwhile, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says he is optimistic that the Metropolitan Sewer District can make sweeping changes to its minority hiring policies. 

Slay, who appoints three members to the MSD Board of Trustees, told the Beacon on Tuesday that he supports altering the agency's guidelines to "maximize" minority participation. He also said he's been in contact with the three St. Louis trustees on the board. (While two of the three St. Louis County trustees voted for the resolution in December, the resolution failed when two of the city's trustees voted against it.)

"Maximizing minority participation" for the agency, Slay said, involves contracting with minority-owned companies and women-owned businesses as well as increasing "the minority workforce."

"This is a huge investment in our infrastructure," Slay said. "There's going to be a lot of money spent. There's going to be a lot of people employed over a long period of time. So the message that I'm sending to our leadership and our members of MSD and the other members as well is that we have to take advantage of this."

Two board members from St. Louis -- John Goffstein and David Visintainer -- voted against the December resolution. And according to the county charter, two trustees from St. Louis County and two trustees from St. Louis must vote affirmatively to pass any ordinance or resolution.

Slay said he is confident that one of the trustees will switch sides

"I will tell you that I have every confidence that this board's going to do the right thing," Slay said. "And I can assure you that I and my office are very much involved in talking with the members to try and make sure that ... we all collectively as a region does the right thing for this community."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers local and state government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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