City Council OKs measure aimed at business bias


Baltimore contractors who discriminate against minority-owned businesses could find themselves out of work for five years under a proposal approved by the City Council yesterday and expected to be signed by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

With more than $500 million of city money at stake annually, the proposal could change the landscape of how Baltimore buys everything from pencils to pothole filler and, in the meantime, give a boost to minority-owned firms that get passed over by large contractors.

"It's a bill whose time has come," said the proposal's lead sponsor, Councilwoman Helen L. Holton. "It sends a message that the time has come to put an end to discrimination in any form."

Specifically, the proposal would allow the city to investigate - and bar from future contracts - companies that refuse to hire minority-owned sub-contractors if investigators can prove those decisions are based on racial, religious or other forms of discrimination.

The 15-member council yesterday approved the measure unanimously with one member, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., abstaining. A spokeswoman for O'Malley said the mayor supports the bill and intends to sign it.

Kathleen M. Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Bankers Association - whose members will be affected by the proposal - said her group supports the bill.

"The banking industry is against discrimination in any form," she said. "For that reason, we have always supported the goals of this legislation."

Baltimore sets goals that require companies doing city business to steer a portion of their contract to minority-owned firms. In 2004, about $86 million was directed to minority-owned businesses in Baltimore.

But supporters of the legislation argue they have no oversight of large firms that accept jobs in the private sector. In some cases, supporters said, those companies refuse to hire minority sub-contractors unless they are forced to by the city.

"The minority [companies] don't grow at the same pace as other companies, and one of the reasons for that is the prime contractors ... will use them on the contract with the city, but nowhere else," said Thomas B. Corey, chief of the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office.

Corey said that about 1,200 minority- and women-owned businesses are registered to do business with the city.

The proposal would allow anyone to file a complaint alleging that a contractor has engaged in discrimination. If Corey's office finds there is enough evidence to suggest discrimination did take place, a larger investigation can be launched. Corey said his office is adding two investigators - bringing the total to three - to look into claims.

If a complaint is sustained, the city could bar the company from receiving future city money, cancel current contracts, refer the issue for criminal prosecution or require mediation.

Amendments weakened the proposal by adding a four-year statute of limitations and stripping a provision that would have required the city to act against discriminatory companies and replacing it with language that would allow officials to decide whether action is necessary.

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