Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Study Could Lead to Racial Preferences in Contracts

Council has sought change for more than a decade. Study will be released soon.

By - Mar 30th, 2021 05:58 pm
A crew from Kiewet works to weld streetcar rails together in 2017. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A crew from Kiewet works to weld streetcar rails together in 2017. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee awards millions of dollars in contracts annually, but none are explicitly targeted to address the racial disparities that plague the city.

City contracting requirements are currently race neutral, but a new disparity study is underway that could soon change that.

Pending the outcome, it could allow the city to implement specific targeting for racial or other minority contracting requirements.

The Common Council has sought to implement such a practice for more than a decade.

In 2010 a disparity study was conducted that determined that African American, Asian American and non-minority women-owned firms were “significantly underutilized” in construction projects. Native American, Hispanic American and non-minority women-owned firms were determined to be significantly underutilized in goods and services contracting.

But after the city implemented racial targets in its hiring requirements, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin sued, arguing that the study was flawed. The city repealed its ordinance and settled the case.

However, that wasn’t the end of the matter

For five years, the council, led by Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II, has been lining up funding to try again.

In 2016 the council overrode a mayoral veto to earmark $500,000 in the 2017 budget for half the cost of the study. It amended the 2018 budget to add the remaining $500,000.

In 2018 the council created an independent review committee consisting of community stakeholders to oversee the study. “The goal here is to get it right this time,” said Stamper. “The only way we are going to improve and do the best we can as city as a city is together.”

In 2020, the Department of Administration (DOA) awarded a contract to Griffin & Strong, P.C., to lead the latest attempt at the study. Eight firms submitted bids on the work.

The Atlanta-based firm has completed similar studies in Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis County, Atlanta (Fulton County), Cleveland (Cuyahoga County), Greensboro, NC and Savannah, GA. The wide breadth of governmental units pursuing the same path is a result of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established legally defensible guidelines for minority contracting requirements.

The first two informational sessions on Milwaukee’s study were held last week.

The city has also created a new office, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, within DOA to improve practices beyond just contracting. Long-time director of the office of small business development Nikki Purvis was chosen to lead the office as the city’s chief equity officer.

The resulting study could have ripple effects beyond the money the city spends directly. The council could also amend its requirements for organizations receiving more than $1 million in city funds.

Projects such as Fiserv Forum and Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons have had to comply with the existing requirements for 40% of the work hours to be performed by unemployed or underemployed city residents and 25% of the contracting, based on value, to be completed by city-certified Small Business Enterprises. But neither of those requirements have an explicit racial target.

The Griffin & Strong study will be publicly available once completed.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

3 thoughts on “City Hall: Study Could Lead to Racial Preferences in Contracts”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    I am skeptical about the use of minority-owned and women-owned businesses to address disparities. I worked for a minority-owned business in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, and the minority owner was rarely around. The general feeling among the employees was that “minority-owned” was just a tool for the company to get contracts.

    The Fiserv and Northwestern Mutual project requirements seem like a much better approach for getting money into the hands of well-deserving and overlooked workers.

  2. Ryan Cotic says:

    How is it legal to treat people differently based on their skin color?

  3. mkwagner says:

    This country has legally treated people differently based on skin color for over 400 years. While the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voter Rights Act of 1968 were thought to address discrimination, these laws did nothing to dismantle underlying institutional racist structures built up to support legal discrimination. While they may be “race neutral,” these laws do little to undo the violence and oppression of the last 400 years.

    Laws that only require race neutrality do nothing to address the centuries of racial discrimination. In fact, race neutrality entrenches the racist and discriminatory practices of the status quo. To have any chance of competing in a “race neutral” economy, most Black business owners will tell you they cannot afford to fight the discrimination for fear of being labelled “undeserving” and locked out of any future opportunities.

    Yes, Ryan it is technically illegal to discriminate based on skin color. This will continue until we dismantle structures that keep discriminatory practices in place. Discrimination based on skin color will continue until we deliberately impose equity, inclusion, and diversity on the economic, political, legal, and social practices that keep it in place.

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