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It’s not too late for the community and Keolis to make the right deal

Too little, too late would seem to best describe the dilemma black community activists face in relation to the $2.6 billion rail transportation contract granted by the state to the Keolis Corporation. There has never been any indication that minority interests were taken into account during the bidding process. Nor is there any visible evidence that community leaders or elected officials are presently proposing a strategy to reverse the consequences of that error – for a contract that takes effect in the coming months.

But it is not too late for Keolis and the minority community to forge a relationship that can lead to a significant agreement satisfactory to all parties involved. A successful resolution will require the will to succeed and a willingness to move beyond the controversy and personal agendas that have dogged this issue for far too long.

In an effort to curry favor with a select group of black religious leaders, a Boston Herald op-ed columnist recently suggested that the presentation of a $105,000 bill to the Keolis Corporation was a legitimate effort to obtain community benefits or linkage of profits. It was not. As the Rev. Bruce Wall stated, “it was a symbolic gesture.” (Which raises the question: If Keolis had issued the $105,000 check, would the group have symbolically not cashed it?)

It would have been more productive if minority community activists had presented Keolis with a proposal rather then a bill for unsolicited services, a proposal that would include innovative funding sources such as matching programs that will share community investment and connect these sources to the needs of a community that Keolis will serve and profit from and programs that include scholarships for academic and vocational job training, ex-offender reentry programs, as well as employment programs that benefit the young, the elderly, and veterans.

More widely, the execution of a well-coordinated and comprehensive strategy to combat domestic and community violence and a host of other issues would be the best use for any community investment made by Keolis.

It is still possible, with the help of Governor Patrick and advocacy from Mayor Walsh, and coordination with elected officials from the community, to negotiate an agreement that addresses diversity in employment, equitable distribution of vendor contracts, and expansion of transportation services to a community long in need of them, all while being sensitive to the concerns of Keolis and its business plan.

The Keolis contract dust-up has left us with some valuable lessons. First, it should be recognized that a small select group of vocal religious leaders cannot, and should not, suggest, as in the naming of their ad hoc group after the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, that they and they alone represent the interests of these communities. In the future, elected officials and community activists should be on the front line of monitoring request sfor proposals and the benefits offered to communities as well as ensuring it actually happens.

Going forward, it is incumbent on the media to expand their sphere of communication with community religious and secular leaders to reflect new methodologies and motivations when covering issues that impact minority neighborhoods.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that Keolis is far from being absolved in this controversy, and should not be let off the hook. Instead of this multibillion-dollar corporation making a big fuss about a small group of well-intentioned if misguided activists, Keolis, with its acknowledged sketchy record dealing with minorities abroad, should long ago have presented and responded after input with a community benefits package that makes clear that they value their clients in communities of color and their aspirations.

For all that, it is not too late to achieve an agreement to be proud of and give support to. A positive outcome to this messy and awkward situation is still possible if people of goodwill, determination, and real concern for communities of color make up their minds to make it happen.

Barry Lawton is a Dorchester resident.