The contentious battle over county contracts being awarded to minority-owned businesses took a step forward this week — but not before the discussion turned testy once again.
County commissioners gave initial approval Tuesday to new rules to address race and gender disparities in county contracting. But not before an attorney for the Associated General Contractors of America asked for a postponement and publicly compared the situation to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh.
“Our U.S. Senate was considering whether or not to make a decision — or whether or not a decision should be placed on hold for a brief period of time in order for due consideration to be made and for the FBI to investigate certain allegations concerning Judge Kavanaugh,” Attorney Adam Linkhorst, who represents AGC, said to the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday. “This board is faced with a similar situation.”
The analogy drew an immediate rebuke from County Mayor Melissa McKinlay.
“Adam, thank you. I just would like to say that I like you and I appreciate the position and the advocacy you’ve done on behalf of your organization, but to compare the disparity in public contracting to allegations of sexual assault is a bit distasteful,” McKinlay replied. “Please don’t come before this board again and compare this disparity in public contracting to allegations of sexual assault.”
At issue was a request by Linkhorst for the commission to postpone a vote on the new rules because of a lawsuit filed by Palm Beach County. The county is suing the consultant it hired to review contracts in order to get public records that include the names of women and minority business owners who, based on the consultant’s promise of anonymity, described discrimination they faced getting government contracts.
The lawsuit was sparked in part because of AGC’s demand that the county provide it with the consultant’s research.
It was during the discussion of approving the new rules that Linkhorst drew the analogy to last week’s Senate hearings. Linkhorst said, “no disrespect was intended.”
He later said he didn’t mean to offend anyone but that the disparity issue is a “racially charged situation similar to the senate that’s politically charged and dealing with a very sensitive social issue.”
“The whole point was there doesn’t need to be a rush to judgment,” he said.
Despite those uncomfortable few minutes, the commission unanimously voted on the first of two readings to accept an ordinance that creates a minority- and women-owned business enterprise program. The commission will vote a final time Oct. 16 and pending approval, the program will begin Jan. 1.
The ordinance establishes certain quotas the county needs to reach when awarding a contract. When a new bid for county work is about to go out, a goal-setting committee will determine whether there has been a disparity in that type of work and how to reach those businesses who haven’t had the same opportunities as others, said Vice Mayor Mack Bernard.
Bernard, who has pushed for the disparity studies and for the contract targets, called Tuesday’s vote “historic.”
Studies for the county and the Solid Waste Authority have shown that women- and minority-owned firms have gotten fewer contracts than their presence in the local marketplace suggests they should have received.
“I have three daughters in this county who attend our public school system and I just feel like if we don’t fight for our kids and the next generation in terms of making sure that there’s a fair opportunity then why are we doing this job?” Bernard said after the meeting.