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Richmond Ends Pact Preferences
January 11, 2001

The City Council acts because Prop. 209 makes racial quotas illegal 

By Shawn Masten

RICHMOND -- The city has scrapped its long-held policy of giving minorities and women preferences in government contracts. 

By a 7-1 vote, the City Council on Tuesday ended the policy, citing the California Supreme Court's recent decision upholding Proposition 209, which banned gender- and race-based preferences in government hiring, education and contracts. 

Tuesday's council vote confirmed a closed-session decision by the council in December to suspend the city's affirmative action policy. 

City officials and a council committee are now drafting a new race- and gender-neutral policy that would benefit local or "disadvantaged" businesses and possibly those run by war veterans. 

The city has yet to define what constitutes a disadvantaged business. 

Such a policy has "great potential of meeting the goals of the city's affirmative action policy," Mayor Rosemary Corbin said before Tuesday's vote. 

Richmond was one of just a handful of cities that continued to follow its affirmative action policy after voters in 1996 passed Prop. 209. The City Council decided to keep the policy until the courts made a definitive ruling over the legality of Prop. 209, which came late last year. 

Contra Costa County, which dismantled its affirmative action programs in the wake of Prop. 209, adopted a plan similar to that now being developed by Richmond officials. 

It is aimed at helping small firms - many of them owned by minorities and women - obtain a greater share of county contracts valued at $50,000 or less. 

Under the county program, a contractor can't submit a bid to the county without trying to subcontract with business enterprises, such as those that are locally owned or considered disadvantaged, said Greg Harvey, assistant county counsel. 

"Most contractors are doing outreach," Harvey said. "The idea is ... you must outreach to 10 other contractor groups and negotiate in good faith with people." 

Civil rights groups have blasted the county's plan and say it does not do enough to redress past discrimination. 

Richmond's affirmative action ordinance had been in effect since 1983. It contained numeric goals for the participation of women and minorities in specific contract categories, including construction, procurement, engineering and professional services. 

The council, recognizing its legal vulnerability, decided to revisit the issue after the state's high court ruled in November that San Jose's affirmative action program violated the law. 

Councilman Tom Butt was the sole dissenter to the vote Tuesday that abandoned the policy. 

"This isn't some kind of giant court order that means we have to stop doing this immediately." Butt said Wednesday. "We could go on for years enforcing this affirmative action plan without somebody suing us. Nobody's sued us yet." 

Other council members vowed to keep the spirit of the affirmative action policy alive through federal programs with anti-discrimination goals. 

For example, the city may continue to use gender and race preference in awarding contracts and jobs related to the $35 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for the demolition of the Easter Hill public housing project and the revitalization of its neighborhoods. 

"Even though we must comply with the law, we will still look for ways to work with and make opportunities available," Councilman Gary Bell said. 

Now that the policy is gone, Councilman Nat Bates said he would like to see a corresponding reduction in the $300,000 budget and eight-member staff at the city's Office of Contract Compliance, which implemented the city's ordinance. 

The office is charged not only with ensuring the fair and equitable participation of minority and woman-owned businesses in city contracts but also with maximizing the participation of Richmond businesses and Richmond residents' employment in city contracts.