Lava-like tensions that had been bubbling beneath the surface of Palm Beach County’s debate about a controversial disparity study erupted Tuesday when Commissioner Steven Abrams tore into a colleague he said had accused him of racism.
Later, in a series of votes, commissioners ultimately decided to accept the findings of that study and to direct county staff to begin crafting race- and gender-based programs aimed at addressing the contracting disparities identified by the study. Those votes capped a contentious debate among commissioners about race, equal opportunity and money and were a victory for Commissioner Mack Bernard, who pushed for the completion of the study and urged his colleagues to acknowledge the study’s findings and embrace its recommendations.
Getting there, though, took commissioners over the rocky terrain of race.
Abrams and Commissioner Hal Valeche expressed unease over accepting the study and re-establishing race- and gender-based programs aimed at addressing the disparities in contracting identified by the study. Valeche pushed for more review of the data used in the study, and Abrams noted that programs set up to help women- and minority-owned firms often do so at a cost to taxpayers.
The Florida chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and some white-owned firms questioned the study and urged the county to, at a minimum, delay the implementation of any study recommendations.
With black business owners and elected officials looking on from the audience Tuesday, Commissioner Paulette Burdick said the time for study and contemplation was over.
“When are we going to sit down and face the fact that we have institutional racism?” Burdick asked. “The data is here. We need to start somewhere. I’m a firm believer that we need to start today.”
Burdick then took aim at arguments against accepting the study and implementing its recommendations.
“All of this other talk is just code language,” she said. “It’s code language. Let’s move forward. Let’s get it done.”
Valeche argued again for more review of the data before it was Abrams’ turn to speak.
“You’re the one who’s speaking in code,” Abrams angrily told Burdick. “For you to mention this code issue, I resent it.”
With that, Mayor Melissa McKinlay ordered a five-minute break. Abrams then rose from his seat and took a couple steps toward Burdick. Getting within a few feet of her, he shouted: “If you’re going to call me a racist from the dais, I’m gong to resent it! You’re speaking in code.”
The comments were a sharp break from the decorum that typically reigns during commission meetings. Commissioners frequently spar with one another, and there is the occasional sharp verbal barb, but the Burdick-Abrams exchange went far beyond that, stunning audience members, some of whom spoke up for Burdick.
“You can’t talk to a woman like that,” one audience member said.
“I’ve got your back,” another told Burdick, eliciting a smile from the commissioner.
After the meeting, Abrams said Burdick had mocked him during a similarly contentious debate about a disparity study conducted for the county’s Solid Waste Authority. The two also were on opposite sides of that debate, with Burdick pushing for the re-establishment of a race- and gender-based program to address disparities and Abrams urging caution because of the potential for lawsuits against the county.
“She mocked me during the Solid Waste Authority debate, questioning my motivations,” Abrams said. “That’s not proper debate.”
Burdick said Abrams’ behavior was “typical bullying behavior.”
“Did I call him a racist?” she asked. “No, I did not.”
Asked what she meant by “code language,” Burdick said the arguments Abrams used were offered up as an excuse not to acknowledge that women- and minority-owned firms had been discriminated against and that the county should do something about that.
She said Abrams owes her and the public an apology.
“I think any adult that exhibits inappropriate and bullying behavior…not only me, but the public deserves an apology,” Burdick said. “Bullying is unacceptable.”
Abrams said he does not owe anyone an apology and that it was Burdick who was using coded language to accuse him of racism.
“Do I regret that I lost my cool? Yes,” he said. “She was the one questioning my motives. I was defending myself.”
After the five-minute break, commissioners voted unanimously to accept a third-party review of the disparity study.
Then came a 4-3 vote in favor of accepting the study itself. Abrams, Valeche and Commissioner Dave Kerner, who joined in the push for more review of the data, voted against accepting the study.
The third and final vote on the issue was for a 30-day comment period after which county staff is to begin crafting gender- and race-based programs aimed at addressing the contracting disparities. That vote was 5-2, with Abrams and Valeche, both Republicans, again in opposition. The other five commissioners are Democrats.
Bernard hugged those who backed his push for the completion of the study and the implementation of its findings.
Black business owners had argued that, without a race-based contracting program, they stood little chance of getting some of the work being paid for with money from the sales tax increase voters approved in 2016. They had looked to Bernard, the only minority on the commission, to embrace their cause — and he did, pounding away from the dais in meeting after meeting about the fact that firms owned by white men got the lion’s share of county contracts.
As the meeting ended, he acknowledged the contentiousness of the discussion.
“This was a tough day,” he said, “but we were able to make the right decision to move the county forward.”