Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay barred public comment Tuesday during an informational workshop where she and other commissioners heard a presentation on how they could address race and gender disparities in county contracting.
McKinlay’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented; other commissioners presiding over meetings have placed a limit on public comments.
But her decision muted an audience of about 60 people, including some who planned to threaten the county with a boycott if they failed to address race and gender disparities identified in the study.
Commissioners also discussed the county attorney’s decision to sue a county consultant to get background documents compiled as part of a pair of disparity studies.
The documents include the names of women and minority business owners who, with the consultant’s promise of anonymity, described discrimination they say they faced in trying to get contracts.
Women and minority business owners, fearing a backlash if they are identified as having complained about discrimination, have hired West Palm Beach attorney Richard Ryles to explore their legal options. They also have discussed calling for a national boycott of tourism and business in the county if it does not address race and gender contract disparities highlighted in the consultant’s studies.
“If we’re not going to be able to participate in county business and we’re taxpayers, why should anybody else?” Ann McNeill, founder of the National Association of Black Women in Construction, said after the meeting. “It’s not fair.”
Workshops such as Tuesday’s meeting are informational in nature. Commissioners don’t cast final votes, and, because of that, they are not required to allow public comments.
But in instances when large numbers of residents show up, the presiding commissioner typically tries to let them speak.
McKinlay, criticized by some women and minority business owners for raising questions about the study and for arguing that gender- and race-based contract goals will be a financial burden on taxpayers, made it clear from the outset Tuesday that she would not allow public comment.
Commissioner Mack Bernard, who has pushed for the disparity studies and for the contract targets, asked McKinlay if her decision was reflective of her own wishes or those of the entire board.
“It’s the chair’s discretion, and I am not accepting public comment,” McKinlay said, explaining that there will be future meetings where the public can speak.
Audience members sat in silence as commissioners got a presentation on some of the study’s findings and on possible ways to address them.
Afterward, they unloaded on McKinlay and the county.
“I think it’s a travesty,” Lia Gaines, president of the West Palm Beach branch of the NAACP and executive director of the Center for Business Enterprise Opportunity. “It’s obvious a subject matter of this import is worthy of discussion.”
Women and minority business owners are unhappy the county is suing its consultant, Mason Tillman and Associates of Oakland, California, to compel the release of information containing the names of people who complained of discrimination in contracting.
Mason Tillman, who conducted a pair of disparity studies — one for the Solid Waste Authority and another for the county as a whole — has argued that its background material is not subject to Florida’s open records law. The Associated General Contractors of America, a construction trades group that has fought the disparity studies and opposed race- and gender-based contract targets, has demanded Mason Tillman’s background information through a public records request to the county.
County Attorney Denise Nieman said open records laws require the county to comply with AGC’s request. And when Mason Tillman refused to turn over its background material, the county was forced to file suit lest it be subject to legal action by AGC, Nieman said.
McKinlay said she requested information from Mason Tillman in December, but the consultant refused to turn over what she sought.
Still, Bernard said Nieman should not have filed suit before bringing the issue to the commission for its consideration.
“I believe the county attorney was completely wrong in not bringing this to us,” he said.
Bernard criticized Nieman for not attending Tuesday’s meeting. Nieman, who does not typically attend workshops, was away on previously arranged travel and three staff attorneys were there.
McKinlay scolded Bernard, saying he was “incorrect” in suggesting that Nieman’s absence meant her office wasn’t represented because those three attorneys were there. And as she has in the past, she underscored her concerns that imposing a program of race- and gender-based contract targets would be a financial burden for taxpayers.
“The cost of doing business in Palm Beach County is getting high, and it’s lowering our job growth,” she said. “My phone is not ringing off the hook asking for this program.”
Leontyne Brown, a marketing executive who serves as secretary of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County, said she is surprised and disappointed by McKinlay’s position.
“She is a huge advocate for women,” Brown said. “That same advocacy doesn’t translate to people of color. I’m confused about that. I don’t understand why.”