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Seeking to give minorities a fair share


Revamping Baltimore's law guaranteeing women and minorities a share of city building contracts will be the subject of two public hearings by the City Council's Labor and Economic Development Subcommittee. The first hearing is today in City Hall.

The bill, presented by Mayor Martin O'Malley, seeks to ensure disadvantaged groups get their fair share of city contracts, without setting specific set-aside percentages.

"You can't have a requirement, or a quota, or any language that smacks of a quota," said Tony White, spokesman for O'Malley. "Hopefully, we'll come up with something that meets the approval of the council and meets the mandates of the federal court."

Abiding by the law

In December, U. S. District Judge Andre M. Davis ruled that Baltimore had to stop enforcing its minority set-aside law, which required that 20 percent of the city's public works contracts go to minority-owned companies. The court also blocked the city from enforcing its rule requiring that women get 3 percent of city contracts.

Judge Davis ruled the city's law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The law was drafted two decades ago to give minority contractors a larger share of the $345 million the city spends on contracts each year.

Associated Utility Contractors of Maryland Inc. sued the city, contending that contracts should be awarded on the basis of low bids, rather than on race, ethnicity or gender. The suit was one of 22 challenges to minority-contracting laws across the country.

White said the administration wants to present a bill "that would still allow the city to pursue diversity in awarding its contracts without being in violation of the federal law."

The city's new plan

The proposed bill sets up a Minority and Small Business Opportunity program that will recommend to the Board of Estimates annual goals for including women, minorities or small businesses in city contracts.

The program also will certify companies for those contracts. The program would be focused on firms in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

One of the program's aims is to identify a pool of minority-owned companies available to handle city contracts.

A recent city study found that many of those companies don't get city contracts because of persistent discrimination.

Unique approaches

Others cities have devised unique approaches to continue minority and female participation in their contracts after the courts have struck down their set-aside laws.

After a federal judge struck down Detroit's affirmative-action requirements in 1993, the city responded by requiring 30 percent of its contracts go to city businesses. The result is that minority firms picked up $500 million in government work in the past four years.

In Richmond, Va., city leaders have started awarding a portion of public contracts based on the assets of companies.

"Minority participation will play a large role in who is awarded the contract," White said.

West Baltimore Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh said she wants to see minority firms form partnerships so they can be hired as the main contractors on projects, instead of as sub-contractors.

"We've got to figure out how do we come together to bid on bigger pieces of the pie," said Pugh, vice chairwoman of the council's Labor and Economic Development subcommittee. "That's the direction that we should be moving to."

The hearing on Council Bill 211 will be held at 4 p.m. today and tomorrow in the City Council chambers.

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