Trying To Get Past Proposal 2

August 18, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The issue is so complex that city commissioners agreed last week to delay their decision on it for two additional weeks, giving themselves a full month to wade through the intricacies, expectations, costs and benefits.

“This is an enormous amount of information to go through,” said James Jendrasiak, 1st Ward Commissioner, who asked that the decision be pushed back.

The question before them is how to replace what was a successful equal opportunity program. Proposal 2 brought minority- and women-owned companies into public building projects and goods and services businesses with the city.

In the November 2006 election, Proposal 2 outlawed race and gender as considerations for public hiring and the awarding of public contracts.

The latest Equal Business Opportunity construction and goods and services policies are primarily based on the number of city residents a private company would employ in a city-funded project or purchase, and each policy offers bidders a dozen ways to earn discounts on their bids.

Ingrid Scott-Weekley, the city’s equal opportunity director, said legal consultants have assured her office that the underlying principle making up the new offerings don’t violate the state’s constitutional ban on using race and gender for a program’s criteria, as place of residence can be used as a measurement.

But there are other issues that commissioners have to consider before they green light the policies. One of those is ensuring compliance with the new EBO policies, which would likely be done through the collection of appropriate data.

Mayor George Heartwell, a leading proponent of diversity in city dealings, questioned the wisdom of going through the expense and time to collect the necessary data if the city wouldn’t be able to use the information. Scott-Weekley said having the data would help the city be more inclusive and diverse. She added that collecting the information on who hired whom isn’t excluded by Proposal 2.

“I don’t think we can be as aggressive as we’d like to be, but this will provide a profile of the companies the city contracts with,” she said. “We want to be careful and work with the city attorney.”

Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins said the data would also let the commission know whether economic development in the city was up or down for a specific time period. But Second Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss said there wasn’t any reason to collect the data if the city couldn’t use it. She pointed out that other groups have the same data.

Second Ward Commissioner David LaGrand said he not only needed to know how much time, energy and money city and private contractors would be required to lay out to comply with the policies, but also what benefits the city would receive from the programs.

“I don’t want to issue city policies in a vacuum,” he said.

Scott-Weekley said the city has spent $30,000 on constructing the new policies so far.

The city ended its enterprise program for minority- and women-owned businesses in the building and services trades a month after voters approved Proposal 2.

Local businessman Dick Ortega approached the Kent County Commission last week to ask whether the county tracks how many local residents are hired to work on county-funded projects, specifically the $118 million parking ramp construction and renovation work being done at the airport.

“I’m not saying that they aren’t,” said Ortega on whether local workers were being used on the project. They may be and that would be a good thing.”

County Facilities Management Director Robert Mihos said the county doesn’t have that zip code information.

First Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski noted that since the 2006 election, the number of minorities involved in publicly funded construction projects has dwindled, but he added that their share has risen beyond expectations in developments that have been paid for by private dollars. Gutowski named Rockford Construction Co. as a private-sector leader in involving minorities and women in the firm’s many building projects over the past few years.

Gutowski also said that commissioners needed to know how well these smaller firms were doing in the region, not just in the city. He cited some advice that his father, Walt Gutowski Sr., gave him about winning a battle but ultimately losing the war.

Commissioners are expected to take up the issue again and possibly make a decision in three weeks.

“We don’t know what our guidelines are. We’re trying to find our way,” said Scott-Weekley to commissioners. “We take our marching orders from you.”

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