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Black-owned newspaper fights city agency’s contract decision

By James Wright
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Washington Informer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of community activists and leaders has staged a rally to protest the denial of a city contract to the largest District-based African American newspaper solely on the basis of it not being a “newspaper of general circulation.”

Keith Silver, a Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner and civil rights activist, and noted attorney Johnny Barnes, held a press conference on Aug. 20 in front of the Judiciary Square Building in Northwest to protest a recent ruling by the director of the D.C. Office of Contracts to award an unclaimed property advertising contract worth more than $30,000 to The Washington Times instead of The Washington Informer.

Silver demanded that the board “review and reverse its procurement decision.”

“I challenge the assertion that The Washington Informer serves a specific ethnic group,” said Silver, quoting a part of an e-mail that Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes received on July 30 from Joseph A. Giddis, director of the contracts office, as to why her newspaper did not receive the contract.

However, shortly after the demonstration and after Barnes filed legal documents requesting that a stay or a delay be granted by the District of Columbia Contract Appeals Board on the contract agreement, The Washington Informer received a response from the contract appeals board that said the matter is “moot” because the Times already published the advertisements in its Aug. 13 and Aug. 20 editions.

“In addition, the District responded that urgent and compelling reasons existed to continue with contract performance of the contract,” according to the response.

The Washington Informer, located in Southeast, was co-founded by Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark in October 1964 to publish positive stories about the District’s Black community. In 1981, under the leadership of Wilhelmina Rolark, a D.C. Council member, a law was passed that allowed newspapers other than The Washington Post to bid for city listings of tax and unclaimed properties on the basis of being a newspaper of general circulation.

As recently as September 2009, The Washington Informer published the D.C. Unclaimed Property advertisements and in June 2011, it ran the D.C. Tax Sale advertisements.

In June, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer’s Office of Contracts issued a solicitation bid for the publication of the city’s unclaimed property listing to “a newspaper of general circulation” that is “widely distributed in the District of Columbia.” The Washington Informer, the Times and two other publications submitted bids.

On July 24, the contracts office sent an e-mail to Denise Rolark Barnes stating the bid “is expected to be awarded to The Washington Times.” On July 30, Giddis e-mailed Rolark Barnes, saying that “in this solicitation, only one awardee was anticipated, and the requirement for the publication is a newspaper of general circulation.”

That day, Rolark Barnes responded by e-mail stating that The Washington Informer has a general circulation and has been recognized as such by the contracts agency since 1981.

On Aug. 2, Giddis responded to the publisher via e-mail saying, “The Washington Informer was found non-responsive based on the fact that the Washington Informer serves a specific ethnic group.”

“It is our view that targeting a specific ethnic group does not meet the requirement of a newspaper of general circulation,” he said.

Washington Informer supporters vehemently disagree with Giddis.

“The Washington Informer speaks for the entire community,” said Nick McCoy, a political and gay rights activist.

“I generally get the newspaper on 14th and P streets, N.W., but you can get it on Connecticut Avenue in Bloomingdale and on Alabama Avenue in Southeast. The statement that it is not a newspaper of general circulation should be retracted.”

John Zottoli, who lives in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Northwest and who is white, said he’s surprised with the board’s reasoning.

“I am a faithful reader of the Informer,” said Zottoli, 66. “I pick up the Informer at the Safeway on Columbia Road. I read the newspaper for the editorial and news sections.”

Zottoli said that “he was offended” by the unspoken assertion that because he is white, he does not read the Informer.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, concurs, saying that the founders of The Washington Informer gave the newspaper its name for a reason.

“Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark did not name it The Washington Black Informer,” Saunders said. “It is designed for all of Washington. It would not have lasted this long if it were only for Blacks.”

Roach Brown, an activist for the District’s returning citizens, said “you cannot find the Washington Times in Ben’s Chili Bowl” and “the Washington Informer goes to federal penal facilities across the country.”

Trayon White, who represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education, said that The Washington Informer helped him get back into school when he was kicked out because he wore dreads and that “the Washington Informer stands up for the people.”

“We need to support the Black press,” said White, 28.

Johnny Barnes offered a detailed analysis of the paper’s legal standing in this matter. The request for the stay of the Times contract is based on the fact that The Washington Informer has been a newspaper of general circulation as defined by the D.C. government since 1981; the language of Section 5 of the District law that applies to the situation “makes it clear that The Washington Informer qualifies as a newspaper of general circulation;” the decision by the contracts board’s director on the basis of The Washington Informer serving a “specific ethnic group” may be in violation of District and federal civil rights laws. The Washington Informer is a Certified Business Enterprise in the District and has priority in contracts whereas the Times is not; The Washington Informer has deep roots in the District and the demands for an automatic stay for discovery and a hearing have not been addressed.

Johnny Barnes added that the basis of awarding the contract is flawed.

He said, “None can argue that anecdotally the likely subscribers to the Washington Times are conservative and Republican — the anecdotal opposite of the population of the District of Columbia, which is overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive.”

“If The Washington Informer can be disqualified because it appeals to a specific ethnic group, a similar disqualification can be leveled against the Washington Times, which some might subjectively argue appeals only to a certain ideological group. In truth and objectively, neither newspaper should be disqualified for such a reason, not permitted by law.”

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