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Media Coverage
Richmond Will Review Preferences
January 6, 1998


Tuesday, January 6, 1998
Section: News
Page: A03

By Scott Andrews


RICHMOND In this city where Proposition 209 was opposed by 73 percent of the voters, politicians are nevertheless considering whether to eliminate a major portion of the government's affirmative-action program by eliminating preferences for women- and minority-owned contracting firms.

The council's willingness to reconsider its historically strong support for preferences may show how much ground affirmative-action proponents have lost in the past year of unsuccessful constitutional challenges. With virtually all high-level legal options exhausted, city leaders are on the verge of obeying a law they say they despise.

If the City Council decides to give up its long-held support for the program designed to counteract discrimination, it would be one of the most liberal municipalities in the state to drop an affirmative-action program.

The initiative attempts to create what proponents call a level playing field by eliminating racial and gender preferences in public education, hiring and contracting.

If the nine-member council decides to stick with its program, it runs an increasing risk of being sued by companies who believe they have been harmed by preferential treatment for women, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

The issue of subcontracting preferences will be discussed at the council meeting today. Council members say the subcontracting debate may widen to include contracting as well. A final decision could be made as early as Jan. 13.

What to do has become a wrenching questions for most council members, who say they believe affirmative action is an effective and critical way to bring a fair share of power to women and to the 64 percent of the city's population that is nonwhite.

The issue is also a personal one for most council members. The council is composed of four women and five men; four members are black, one is Hispanic and one is of Middle Eastern descent. Only one member Councilman Tom Butt does not fall into a group protected by affirmative action.

"We are really in a quagmire," said Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh, a black woman who chairs the city Affirmative Action Committee "This is the teeth of our affirmative-action program. This is probably one of the most important issues that I have dealt with since I became a council member. The ramifications could be with us forever."

Most members say they have not made a decision on how they will vote.

The move to make a decision now comes as city attorneys pinpoint specific people or firms they believe may initiate a lawsuit against the city.

Although Prop. 209 was passed in November 1996, such cases have been possible only since August, when federal courts lifted a temporary stay in the law's enforcement. Lawsuits have been even more likely since the U.S. Supreme Court declined in November to consider the law's constitutionality.

Despite the council's overwhelming support for affirmative action, there is still debate about whether it has worked well enough here.

City statistics show that in construction and related service contracts, minority-owned firms won 14 percent of city funds from 1990 to 1992. In other contracting fields, minorities won even less business. By 1996-97, minorities' share of all contracting business had risen to 22 percent.

For firms owned by women, the share in 1990-92 was highest in professional service contracts, where women won 5 percent of the business. In other categories, women earned as little as 1 percent of contracts. They were winning 7 percent of all contracting money by 1996-97.

Most council members say they hope to preserve as much of the affirmative action program as possible. Some have proposed commissioning a $100,000 study that would update an earlier study that proved local discrimination against minority- and women-owned contractors and subcontractors and served as the legal basis for the city's current program.

But there is no case law showing that such a study can protect against enforcement of Prop. 209. Some council members believe the study may be a failed attempt to avoid reality.