Palm Beach County SWA delays hauling bids over bias accusations

The Palm Beach County Commission decided Thursday to postpone the deadline for garbage hauling contract bids so commissioners can consider the implementation of a program aimed at helping women- and minority-owned firms get a piece of those contracts, which could be worth as much as $450 million.

Tuesday was the deadline for those bids, but Commissioner Mack Bernard — pointing to the results of a study showing that women- and minority-owned firms got only a small portion of contracts awarded by the county’s Solid Waste Authority in recent years — persuaded his colleagues to indefinitely postpone that deadline. The firm that conducted the study, Mason Tillman Associates, of California, recommended the re-establishment of a race- and gender-based program to give firms owned by women and minorities a better shot at SWA contracts.

SWA had such a program for 20 years until it was scrapped in 2012 in favor of a race- and gender-neutral program aimed at helping small businesses.

Debate about the study, which cost $361,000, the SWA’s response to it and whether the county should embrace Mason Tillman’s recommendations, has been protracted and divisive.

Bernard, the only minority on the commission, accused the SWA leadership of impeding Mason Tillman’s work and deliberately delaying consideration of a race- and gender-based program. He said SWA wanted the seven-year, lucrative hauling contracts to be awarded before any such program could be established, an accusation SWA Executive Director Mark Hammond has denied.

Hammond also denied that his agency impeded the study. He said he hired a political scientist who has frequently testified in court cases challenging disparity studies and the race- and gender-based programs they sometimes lead to, not because he was resisting such a program but because his staff had no expertise in disparity studies.

Hammond had argued that postponing the receipt of the hauling bids and not awarding those contracts as scheduled in February could jeopardize the ability of the winning bidders to begin work in October.

The winning bidders, Hammond said, could need time to purchase equipment and study routes. Some commissioners, most notably Steven Abrams and Hal Valeche, shared those concerns.

But after a 3½-hour meeting Tuesday, when Mason Tillman’s president told commissioners about race and gender disparities in a variety of SWA contract areas, commissioners decided to scrap next week’s deadline. They agreed to meet on Dec. 20 to get more details from the study, consider the re-establishment of a race- and gender-based program and set a new deadline for bids.

“All along, I had trust in the commission to allow a delay to implement the disparity study,” Bernard said. “I’m really happy that the commission decided to delay.”

About 30 people, including many black and women business owners, watched as commissioners debated the study and whether to postpone the deadline for the hauling bids.

Given an opportunity to speak, several audience members urged commissioners to postpone receipt of the bids and implement a race- and gender-based program.

“Given the dismal performance of the Solid Waste Authority for the last 25 years, I’m asking that you delay the contracts until this disparity study has been implemented,” said Robbie Littles, chairman of a black male community advocacy group called Bridge Builders. “To do anything less would be a disservice to the minority constituents that you are sworn to serve and protect.”

Bernard said he believes postponing the bids might result in only a short delay from when the haulers are to begin fulfilling the terms of their new contracts late next year.

Several current haulers said they’d be open to extending their existing contracts, but they added that they would likely need additional compensation, which could come from taxpayers in the form of higher garbage fees.

Bernard said he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“They shouldn’t charge more for us to get this right,” he said.

In a telephone presentation, Mason Tillman President Eleanor Ramsay told commissioners that, from 2009 through 2013, firms owned by women and minorities got a much smaller number of contracts than their presence in the marketplace suggested they should have received.

Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she was disappointed by what Mason Tillman found.

“These numbers are dismal,” she said. “They’re embarrassing. We should all be ashamed. We all have a long way to go.”

SWA officials said they have had limited success getting women- and minority-owned firms to bid on contracts, an explanation that fell flat with Burdick.

“The excuses are no longer acceptable,” she said. “We need to do something about this.”

Some women and minority business owners in the county have long complained that they have not gotten a fair shot at county contracts. But SWA Managing Director Dan Pellowitz said the authority has not acted to prevent women and minorities from getting contracts.

“I can assure you this is not about discrimination,” he said. “This is not about that.”

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