Oakland City Hall Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to pass an ordinance that aims to make it easier for small, POC-led, and women-owned local businesses to compete for city contracts.

The ordinance, which was co-authored by Council members Loren Taylor and Treva Reid, will revise the city’s existing enterprise program, which allows local businesses to access various resources like contract bid discounts and small-business mentorship programs.

Changes to the program under the new ordinance include setting aside a portion of public works projects for small local contractors, and awarding construction and professional service contracts valued at $50,000 and under to local small businesses. The ordinance also seeks to strengthen the current contract bidding process by requiring the city’s Contracts Compliance Office to be more thorough in its reviews and analyses of companies the city does business with.

Currently, the city’s enterprise program sorts local businesses into three categories: “local,” “small local,” and “very small local” business enterprises. The new ordinance creates a fourth category, “jumbo local” business enterprises. Supporters of the ordinance say this change will allow local businesses no longer classified as “small” to better compete against large non-local businesses for city contracts.

Many of the disparities that the ordinance is seeking to address were laid bare in a study commissioned by the city in 2017 and made available to the public this past November. The report, an extensive analysis of Oakland’s contract procurement process from 2011 to 2016, showed that disparities exist along racial and gender lines in how city contracts are awarded to local small businesses.

Across each of the four industries examined in the study—construction, professional services, goods, and services—Black contractors, and female contractors of all races were shown to receive a disproportionately low share of city contracts. White men received a disproportionately higher share of contracts than they would have under a fair system.

“This is just the beginning,” Taylor said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We have a long way to go to reverse systemic racism and structural barriers that have long plagued Black-owned businesses and women-owned businesses when it comes to accessing their fair share of contracting opportunities.”

To raise support for changing the city’s contracting rules, Taylor’s office had held a virtual town hall this past weekend. Dozens of Oakland’s Black contractors, as well as city employees, attended and offered their thoughts on the proposed legislation as a means to bring more revenue to the city’s Black community. Cathy Adams, president of the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, was among those present at the town hall. Adams and her organization played a crucial role in advocating for the disparity study’s release in late November.

“When you have small Black businesses competing with big white businesses, it just doesn’t seem like a fair process,” Adams told The Oaklandside in December after the disparity study was released. Adams worked closely with Councilmember Taylor to ensure the council would take action.

Taylor encouraged those at the virtual town hall to attend Tuesday’s council meeting and speak in support of the ordinance.

“We need to take a serious look at the companies that are getting all the contracts, especially if there is no Black or people of color representation within these companies,” said Jabari Herbert, an Oakland-based developer, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We need to change Oakland to make Oakland right for all the citizens that live here.

“We believe we are justified in moving towards raced based recommendations in order to repair those harms,” Taylor said.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.