American Indian community leaders and contractors yesterday blasted efforts to tighten criteria under which Native Americans would qualify for participation in Baltimore's minority set-aside program.
"The whole hearing is politically and racially motivated," Barry Richardson, of the American Indian Center, told the Minority and Women's Business Enterprise Committee at City Hall. "It's wrong. It's wrong. It's wrong."
The issue has been raised by several black contractors who say the city's minority set-aside law should be strengthened to prevent firms from qualifying as minority owned when their owners are American Indian but have not "lived as Indians."
Arnold M. Jolivet, head of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, said: "The perception is that it is very easy to prove American Indian ancestry."
But American Indian contractors and activists who testified at yesterday's City Hall hearing disagreed.
"All my life people have asked me, 'What are you?' 'What are you,' " said Joe Young, owner of a flooring and remodeling firm. "I am an American Indian. But it is a hurtful thing to have to come here and to be made to say what you are."
The minority business enterprise statute sets aside 20 percent of municipal contracts and purchasing for firms owned by minorities and 3 percent for those owned by women.
Under the law, American Indians are defined as: "Persons having origins in any of
the original peoples of North America and who are recognized as American Indian, by either a tribe, tribal organization, or a suitable authority of the community."
The Board of Estimates, which awards the contracts, asked the minority and business enterprise committee to explore tightening that definition after questions were raised about the ownership of a steel company that was seeking minority certification.
The owner of the firm, which went unnamed at yesterday's hearing, is an American Indian, although several black contractors claim that all of his personal papers identify him as white. The black contractors allege that the owner did not "step forward" as an American Indian until he realized that it would help his steel company benefit from the minority set-aside program.
"If he has not lived as an Indian, we do not believe that he should be entitled to be part of the program," said Robert Clay, a contractor and head of the Maryland Metropolitan Association of Minority Contractors.
Out of about 1,000 firms certified under the set-aside law, no more than 15 are owned by American Indians, said Lola M. Smith, chief of the city's Equal Opportunity Compliance Office.
"We have so little and we are still trying to fight for this," Mr. Richardson said.
Ron Andrade, an American-Indian activist, told the commission that "it is hard for me to determine what type of test you are seeking."
After the hearing, Robert Scruggs, the lawyer who chairs the commission, said that the panel probably will make a recommendation to the Board of Estimates in a month.