City seeks revamp of contract bill


In an effort to appease minority business owners, city officials this week worked on revamping a proposal to increase minority participation in city contracts by providing for the Board of Estimates to set contracting goals annually.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. unveiled the amendments during two City Council hearings on the issue, as officials grapple with a federal judge's ruling in December that invalidated the city's minority set-aside law.

Mayor Martin O'Malley introduced a bill in June to increase minority participation goals while trying to avoid further court scrutiny. Noting the city's 65 percent African-American population, he proposed shifting the hiring emphasis to small business, in hopes of raising minority participation.

But critics complained that the legislation would reduce percentages of contracts to African-American businesses from 20 to 14 percent on construction projects and as low as zero in areas such as service contracts.

The initial proposal was drafted after the city spent $200,000 for a consultant's study that showed most contracts continued to benefit "non-minority men." Under the latest changes offered by Zollicoffer, minority participation goals would be set each year by the city Board of Estimates.

"We want to foster business and eradicate that disparity," Zollicoffer said.

Lisa M. Harris, a Baltimore attorney representing African-American and Hispanic contracting groups, said her clients welcome the bill's changes but want the city to go even further. Harris asked that O'Malley issue an executive order that would stress to city departments the city's emphasis on hiring minority contractors.

The minority businessmen also are asking the council to allow representatives from their groups to be at the table when the annual goals are set by the five-member city spending board.

"This remains a problem in Baltimore, where the minority is the majority," Harris said. "My clients want to share in the economic pie of Baltimore."

Last year, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis ordered the city to stop enforcing its minority contracting law, which required 20 percent of every city contract to be awarded to African-American businesses and 3 percent to women-owned businesses.

The order came after the Associated Utility Contractors of Maryland Inc. successfully challenged the city law in federal court, arguing that its members were being denied contracts.

Al Washington, president of AWA Mechanical, Inc., said his company has watched its share of city contracts dry up since the Davis ruling. Last year, AWA obtained $1 million in city contracts and has earned nothing this year.

"It has virtually shut down, eliminated, stopped and decapitated the minority business enterprise business in Baltimore City," Washington said.

Business owners pointed to other cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, where minority participation is as high as 45 percent.

Bill Goodin, a Northeast Baltimore activist, told council members that they should not accept a bill with percentages that fall short of reaching parity with the city's black population.

"We're in a city with close to 70 percent African-American population and we're begging for 14 percent," Goodin said.

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