Palm Beach County takes ‘historic’ step in addressing gender/race disparities
Tears were shed, apologies were given and fiery words were spewed.
But, “history” was made at Tuesday’s Palm Beach County Commission meeting, Vice Mayor Mack Bernard said.
Commissioners unanimously approved, on final reading, new rules to address race and gender disparities in county contracting. Studies have shown women- and minority-owned firms have procured fewer contracts than their proportional presence in the local marketplace suggests they should have received.
The vote brought an end to a four-year process marred by controversial comments, and marked by tense and heated meetings — and Tuesday’s was no different.
Mayor Melissa McKinlay said she hopes the community will now be able to heal the divides that have been exposed.
And she did some of that on her own from the dais on Tuesday.
McKinlay apologized to attorney Adam Linkhorst for her delivery of comments she made at a previous meeting earlier this month after Linkhorst compared the commission’s pending vote on the disparity rules to the U.S. Senate’s pending vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation amid a sexual assault accusation and an FBI investigation.
Linkhorst, who represents Associated General Contractors of America, drew the analogy at the first reading of the new rules in asking the commission to hold off on voting because of a lawsuit the county filed against a consultant it hired to review county contracts. The lawsuit seeks to get public records of the consultant’s research, and was sparked in part because of AGC’s demand the county provide it to them.
McKinlay told Linkhorst his comparing of disparity in public contracting to sexual assault allegations against a Supreme Court nominee was distasteful and to not come before the board again making that argument.
On Tuesday, she apologized for her brusk tone. Linkhorst said he appreciated the mayor’s comments and didn’t mean any disrespect.
But the data is still a point of contention, and the lawsuit is still playing out in the courts.
Michelle Depotter, chief executive officer of AGC’s Florida chapter, said it’s disappointing that they can’t get the data. She called the study “flawed” and asked the commission to postpone voting. She also said AGC’s members have “built this county.”
McKinlay told Depotter that she has the toughest job of all and “it’s not easy to be on a different side of this issue.”
The new rules, which go into effect Jan. 1, create a minority- and women-owned business enterprise program. Certain targets have been established that 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.
Verdenia Baker, the county’s administrator, said now is the time for businesses to get certified with the county so they can be notified of any work opportunities the county has. Also, Baker said, companies that are subcontracted need to register as a vendor with the city.
Sylvia Sharps, a resident and small-business owner, said she supports the rules, but reluctantly.
“I want to be hired because I’m qualified. I don’t want to be chosen because the contract or the ordinance that mandates the contract tells you to. I want you to choose me because I can do the job. That’s where I eventually want us to get to,” Sharps said.
Commissioner Steven Abrams agreed with that view. The discussion and topic brought him to talk about his late father, George Ehrlich, who was a Holocaust survivor. When his dad was 10, his dad’s mother bribed the Gestapo with her valuables for visas and the family fled to New York on a ship.
Abrams grew teary-eyed and so did McKinlay.
Said Commissioner Mary Lou Berger: “It’s been a long long haul. This is truly a ground-breaking move forward for Palm Beach County.”