The Civil Rights Division of Denver’s Regional Transportation District is spending upwards of $15,000 a year on tables at awards dinners and membership dues in the name of outreach. But even the elected directors responsible for RTD’s oversight can’t explain why the money is being spent or how it benefits the district or the taxpayers.
Over the course of the past year, the division has bought tables at awards dinners for the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Power Gala and the Hispanic Contractors of Colorado, among others.
A Watchdog.org analysis of RTD’s check register places the amount spent on such dinners and luncheons at nearly $10,000. In addition, the Division pays for annual memberships in the Asian, Hispanic, and Black Chambers of Commerce, as well as the Hispanic Contractors of Colorado. These memberships total roughly $5,000.
RTD confirmed to Watchdog that internal emails to the RTD Board of Directors request their attendance, but few – if any – directors attend these functions, with the bulk of the seats going to staff.
RTD Board Member Natalie Menten, now in her second term, said she prides herself on having never attended any of these functions, considering them a waste of taxpayer money.
“I look at these amounts, and I think about how many of these dinners are a monthly paycheck for one of our riders,” Menten said. “There are plenty of opportunities for outreach and community contact without spending this kind of money on a fancy dinner.”
The Civil Rights Division was established in 2010 as part of the Executive Office, and is tasked with preventing employment, contracting, and service discrimination. To that end, it has four departments: Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, Equal Employment Opportunity, the Small Business Office, and the Workforce Initiative Now.
RTD, as a recipient of federal funds, is governed by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.” Most government contracting offices such as RTD have similar programs aimed at boosting access for minority-owned, woman-owned, and small businesses.
In an email to Watchdog, RTD’s Civil Rights Division emphasized its Small Business Office’s “strong commitment to working with Small Business Entities and Disadvantaged Business Entities.” The dinners are part of its “multi-layered approach to getting out into and building relationships with those communities.”
“RTD Civil Rights and Procurement participates in a vast number of EXPOs, 1-on-1 matchmaking, roundtable, and panel discussions throughout the year,” RTD spokesman Tina Jaquez wrote in an email. “An example of 2016 activities include: USDOT Prime Connections, Advance Procurement EXPO, Day at the DOT- Procurement EXPO, Opportunity Council Connections, SMPS Diversity & Inclusion Panel, ADA Symposium Panel, Chamber Coalition Business Expo and many more.”
The division defends its participation in these dinners, despite the five-figure price tag, emphasizing the value of the CEO’s presence there, as part of “authentic outreach.” However, Small Business Office Manager Audrina Gibson already does 1-on-1 meetings with those Chambers and organizations, targeting them with information about how to do business with RTD.
RTD confirmed that the organizational memberships are capped at $2,000 per organization per year, and are approved by the board. The dinners are approved by Zamy Silva, head of the Civil Rights Division.
Board member Paul Solano, who chairs RTD’s Civil Rights Committee, said he has attended a number of the dinners.
“It’s not a duty that I have, it’s of interest to me, but I went to these even before I was chair of the committee.” Solano, whose panel oversees the Civil Rights Division, could not state the specific benefit to RTD or its Civil Rights Division of attending these dinners. “I was asked to go to these, so I went. You’d have to ask the Division about that.”
Transit systems in other metro areas of similar size appear to have varying practices with regard to using memberships and dinners for outreach.
St. Louis’ has never been required to buy memberships in order to reach groups’ memberships, but does sometimes buy tables or individual seats depending on that year’s budgetary constraints. Cleveland’s system can apply for state reimbursement for memberships under a federal program, and may buy tables at banquets. Cincinnati receives a reduced membership rate and reduced rates for facilities rentals, but could not confirm that it attended annual dinners.
Joshua Sharf is a freelance writer in Denver. Connect with him on Twitter: @joshuasharf