March 30, 2018

The W-S City Council Flip-Flops, Awards Marketing Contract To Wildfire

Monday night’s city council meeting witnessed a flip-flop that won’t soon be forgotten. Over the last few months, the Winston-Salem City Council has turned the relatively routine matter of partnering with a local ad agency to market the Dixie Classic Fair into a soap opera.

To be fair Wildfire deserves its share of the credit for the controversy. Wildfire is a local ad agency on Liberty Street that has worked with some big corporate/non-profit clients. None of Wildfire’s 32 current employees are African-American, Asian, Native American or Hispanic. Which beyond being out-of-touch with the 21st century, seems like a terrible way to run an ad agency. How can an all-white workforce market to a multi-ethnic society?

Wildfire, LLC

Wildfire, LLC’s contract with the City to market the Dixie Classic Fair, was unanimously approved by the Finance Committee several weeks ago. But then it was surprisingly pulled off the city council’s February 19 agenda in a principled move by Councilmember Montgomery, which I applaud.

Regular Meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council – Feb 19th, 2018

Live and Recorded Public meetings of Regular Meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council for City of Winston-Salem, NC

Councilmember Montgomery politely objected to Wildfire’s bid. He spoke about “cultural sensitivity regarding the products being marketed” by the City.

Montgomery wondered aloud how exactly did Wildfire meet the City’s M/WBE (Minority and Women Business Enterprise Program) requirements without employing any minorities?

Wildfire’s proposal for dealing with its complete lack of diversity was to place ads in the Winston-Salem Chronicle-the city’s Black newspaper.

Councilmember Derwin Montgomery and Councilmember James Taylor both took offense to Wildfire’s proposal. Taylor, the council’s unofficial wordsmith, went so far as to call Wildfire’s proposal to subcontract with the Chronicle “inhumane and uncivilized.”

To prevent a conflict of interest, Councilmember Montgomery stated that the Chronicle (a publication that both Councilmember’s Montgomery and Taylor have an ownership stake in) would not profit in any way if Wildfire placed Dixie Classic Fair ads in it.

 

I applaud the city council for taking a stand against Wildfire’s racist hiring practices during the February 19 meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council. In an even more surprising move, they went one step further and studied the feasibility of marketing the Dixie Classic Fair in-house.

During March’s Finance Committee meeting, the City’s Director of Marketing & Communications, Ed McNeal stated that the City of Winston-Salem could market the Dixie Classic Fair more innovatively and potentially at a lower cost than Wildfire. McNeal presented the Finance Committee with a bold vision for how his department could market the Dixie Classic Fair using cutting-edge technologies.

Finance Committee on 2018-03-19 4:30 PM – Mar 19th, 2018

Live and Recorded Public meetings of Finance Committee on 2018-03-19 4:30 PM for City of Winston-Salem, NC

There were some objections from Councilmember Robert Clark, who maintained that Wildfire should have been given the contract. But the March Finance Committee approved a motion for the City to handle the marketing of the DC Fair in-house.

This was a win-win. The City stood to save and little money and probably do a better job than an all-white ad firm. It appeared that the full city council would move forward with marketing the Dixie Classic Fair in-house.

The task of marketing a fair that has become an annual tradition in northwest North Carolina isn’t rocket science. Why should the City pay another firm, especially one that isn’t integrated to perform work that they are capable of doing themselves?

I support politicians occasionally reversing course when principles are involved. But when politicians cynically flip-flop, that’s unacceptable. That’s what we witnessed Monday night, a blatant betrayal of progressive values, a step back for the City of Winston-Salem.

Monday night, the City reversed course and awarded Wildfire a one year contract. In an apparent behind the scenes compromise, the council also agreed to make adjustments to its M/WBE program and commissioned a new disparity study.

Something happened before Monday’s city council meetings. It appears that Allen Joines gave Reverand Derwin Montgomery a come to Jesus talk. Montgomery and his fellow African-Americans on the city council did a complete 180.

As soon as the secretary read the resolution regarding the marketing of the fair, Mayor Joines interjected. The president of the Winston-Salem Alliance stated that “since the Finance Committee, there has been a considerable amount of discussion on this particular item.”

Joines then recognized Councilmember Montgomery who offered a substitute amendment granting Wildfire a one year contract with the City. The city council then unanimously approved a one year contract with Wildfire.

Why did a city council comprised of seven Democrats (not including Mayor Joines) and one lone Republic approve a contract in 2018 with a company of just over 30 employees that doesn’t have a single minority on its books? Why did Montgomery, Taylor, Adams, and Burke all approve the contract with Wildfire?

What politicians and businesspeople discussed Wildfire’s marketing contract with the City behind closed doors? The city council meets in public. But it’s clear that the City’s agreement with Wildfire was negotiated behind closed doors where democracy dies.

The amount of money that Wildfire stands to gain from its work for the City is no small amount, $230,000 per year. (The original proposal was for three years, with an option to renew the contract for three additional years. That’s a possible $1,380,000 altogether that Wildfire might squeeze out of Winston)

Wildfire Proposal (1)

 

Regular Meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council – Mar 26th, 2018

Live and Recorded Public meetings of Regular Meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council for City of Winston-Salem, NC

Wildfire has worked with many of the biggest businesses and non-profits in the city; Hanes Brands, Reynolds American, Wake Forest University, and Lowes Foods to name a few. Wildfire is bound to have many friends in the local business community. And its the business community that runs Winston. Once again we see that the business community’s values are not our values.

The City Council is probably pleased with itself. They made some adjustments to the M/WBE program. They also approved a diversity study to ensure that the City is diverse in its contracting practices in the future.

But the bottom line is, the city council unanimously gave a contract to an all-white firm for a service that it could do in-house, better and at a lower price. Then they approved a $250,000-$300,000 study to make sure that don’t partner with a company like Wildfire in the future.

Studies are important. Winston loves studies, such as the Poverty Thought Force’s report. But pages and pages of data won’t necessarily bring about change.

Winston doesn’t need more studies, it needs politicians with backbone, who aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade. The city needs some politicians who are committed to a progressive vision for Winston.

Doing business with a Jim Crow ad firm is a step in the wrong direction. It’s something that Mayor Joines and every member of the Winston-Salem City Council should be ashamed of.

 

 

 

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