Harris County commissioner Rodney Ellis successfully convinced his fellow commissioners to approve the county joining the City of Houston in a disparity study to analyze the county’s use of minority and women-owned businesses.

The $600,000 investment to fund the study comes from Ellis’ budget because other commissioners chose not to contribute to the funding of the study.

The authorization of the study comes as county residents prepare to vote in a $2.5 billion flood control bond election scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 25. The timing of the disparity study is paramount to ensure minorities and women get a fair share of the substantial flood dollars that may result from approval of the bond election.

“I’m delighted the county is doing a disparity study,” Ellis said. “I would have preferred that all of us on the governing board pay for it but I’m privileged to represent the people from Precinct One. I think it is a worthwhile investment to benefit a people who have been historically disenfranchised throughout the county.

Recently, Ellis sent letters to Metro chair Carrin Patman and Port of Houston Authority chair Janiece Longoria encouraging them to also join the disparity study.  Though both organizations are chaired by women, neither had placed the item on their respective agendas for board consideration.

At a recent Metro meeting Patman said that because the disparity study was not on the agenda they could not discuss the issue at length and there are “legal restraints” keeping Metro from participating in the study.

NAACP Houston Branch President Dr. James Douglas, who spoke during the Metro public session, was asked if he knew of any legal restraints.

“No, [there are] nine major metropolitan areas including New York, Chicago, Cleveland and with a race-based, narrowly tailored goal-oriented MWBE program which is what I am asking Metro to do,” Douglas said.

“If all these other major cities are doing this, there is no legal impediment to Metro doing it.  I don’t know where they are getting this.  The Supreme Court has already said you can have race-based programs as long as they are narrowly tailored and that’s all we are asking Metro to do.  There is nothing illegal about what we are asking them to do.

A spokesperson for the Port of Houston, Lisa Ashley, said that only the port commissioners could make the decision on the disparity study and it would have to be placed on the agenda in the future. There was no definitive date of when the disparity study would be placed on the port’s agenda.

According to Colette Holt, president of Colette Holt & Associates – who is currently conducting the City of Houston disparity study – the benefits of the study are threefold: it provides government entities with facts regarding their MWDBE program in the case of a legal challenge in court, gives information about the capacity to do business with minority and women-owned businesses and serves as an outreach tool for building relationships with the contractors gaining their input and feedback.

Holt, known as an authority on disparity studies, has been in business since 1994.

The Harris County disparity study “piggybacks” off the City of Houston disparity study, which began in January 2017. The projected start date for the county’s study is around Labor Day, however Holt emphasized that, “the timetable is driven by one thing and that’s how long it takes the [county] to get us the contract records.

“If the county is doing great, we will tell them that,” Holt said. “If there are improvements to be made, we will tell them that. Overall as a national matter, women and minority businesses, especially Black-owned businesses, don’t get their fair share of work without a real program.”