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Board grills Solid Waste Authority chief over disparity study handling

Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority Director Mark Hammond endured a grilling Tuesday from county commissioners unhappy about the agency’s response to a study that found firms owned by women and minorities have not had a fair shot at agency contracts in recent years.

Commissioner Mack Bernard, who has suggested Hammond and his management team deliberately impeded the study and failed to implement its recommendations, peppered Hammond with questions about a consultant the executive director hired to provide guidance and feedback as the study was underway.

That consultant, George La Noue, a political scientist who has frequently testified in cases challenging disparity studies and the gender- and race-based set aside programs they recommend, has been paid $68,000 by the SWA since 2014. He was hired at Hammond’s discretion and without prior approval by county commissioners, who serve as the SWA’s governing board.

His hiring also angered Commissioner Paulette Burdick, who said County Administrator Verdenia Baker would face serious consequences if she had made such a move.

“If Mrs. Baker did it, that would be part of an annual review and consideration for termination,” Burdick said.

Hammond, who reports directly to the seven-member county commission, told commissioners, “It’s well within my authority to hire outside experts.”

He said La Noue was hired because SWA staff does not have expertise in disparity studies.

The SWA’s disparity study, conducted by Mason Tillman Associates of California at a cost of $361,000, serves as a preview of sorts of the debate that could unfold when a larger, county-wide study is released this fall. With the proceeds of a sales tax increase that voters approved last year, the county has embarked on a set of projects expected to cost a combined $800 million over the next decade.

Women and minority business owners, complaining that they aren’t getting a fair shot at county contracts, want to see a gender- and race-based set-aside program re-established. Other contractors, led by the Florida East Coast Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, question the validity of the disparity study and wonder if it’s being undertaken solely as a means to make sure some groups get a share of county contracts.

The debate has already demonstrated its capacity to open racial fissures. Most of those who conducted the study and pushed for the implementation of its recommendations are black; most of those who have questioned its validity are white.

Bernard, his voice rising in frustration Tuesday, asked Hammond why La Noue was hired when county commissioners had authorized the hiring of yet another consultant, Maryland attorney Franklin Lee, to assess the methodology used in the study. Lee has been paid $33,600 for his review.

“This board never hired Mr. La Noue,” Bernard said. “He’s the hired gun to basically kill disparity studies.”

Bernard continued firing away, training his ire on Hammond, who sat at a table only a few feet from the commission dais.

“I’m appalled by Mr. La Noue being hired by you,” Bernard told him. “How is that not sabotaging this disparity study?”

Hammond appeared at times to be annoyed by Bernard’s questions, dismissive of them or both.

At one point, asked by another commissioner if he cared to respond to issues Bernard raised, Hammond said, “Not really.”

Besides finding that firms owned by women and minorities haven’t had a fair shot at SWA contracts, Mason Tillman’s study recommended the re-establishment of a gender- and race-based set aside program.

Bernard wants the SWA to re-establish such a program before the agency awards seven-year-long garbage contracts expected to be worth as much as $450 million. Bids for those contracts are due Dec. 5, with the SWA expected to award the contracts in February.

But there seemed to be little appetite on the board for delaying the awarding of the hauling contracts. Several commissioners agreed with Hammond that the winning bidders will need to acquire equipment and study routes before they begin providing services in October.

Commissioner Steven Abrams said he said he shares the goal of making sure women- and minority-owned firms get a share of county contracts, but he said he wants to make sure the overall goal is also achieved — providing hauling services to residents as inexpensively as possible.

Commissioner Hal Valeche raised questions about the accuracy of Mason Tillman’s disparity study.

“I think there are serious issues with this report,” he said. “I think they merit a real discussion of how it was compiled. We need to have an open discussion and get to the bottom of whether this disparity study as its presented to us is valid and what the consequences are if it’s not.”

Tuesday, however, was not the day for a full discussion of the study. Commissioners had intended only to hold an organizational meeting — which they did, voting to move Bernard from vice chairman of the SWA’s governing board to chairman, ending Commissioner Melissa McKinlay’s term as chair three months early.

Bernard then sought to have a discussion about the circumstances surrounding the disparity study. After some back and forth — McKinlay said it was “poor practice” to amend a meeting agenda with no prior notice to the general public while Commissioner Dave Kerner said he had no problem hearing a colleague out on an issue important to him — commissioners acceded to Bernard’s request for a discussion.

As the discussion unfolded, McKinlay said she is “disgusted” by how long the disparity study has taken and by all of the back and forth it has generated.

“I have never seen something so mismanaged as this disparity study,” McKinlay said. “I’m disgusted by the process, not only by the Solid Waste Authority but by the county. If we weren’t so invested in this, I’d say scrap the whole thing and start again.”

Denying that he or his staff impeded the study or delayed implementing its recommendations, Hammond said the hauling contracts will have a clause requiring winning bidders to make an effort to reach the goals established by any gender- or race-based set-aside program the board implements.

Bernard, however, said he’s worried the winning bidders will argue that they will have to charge more because their requirements have changed.

That question and others — including whether the current hauling contracts can be extended to give the SWA time to establish a set-aside program — will be the focus of a meeting commissioners set for Nov. 30 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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