Meetings held by Guilford County commissioners and staff to set the agenda for upcoming Board of Commissioners meetings are almost always low-key affairs, however, at a Tuesday, Jan. 8 agenda meeting, Chairman Alan Branson and Commissioner Skip Alston got into a lively back and forth over the amount of work that would go to black-owned firms in a proposed contract for a $14.4-million county construction project.

Guilford County staff is recommending that a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility be built by New Atlantic Contracting Inc. out of Winston-Salem, the low bidder on the project.  Alston asked what the amount of minority participation would be under the proposal from New Atlantic.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing informed Alston that the project would have 25.3 percent minority and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) participation.  Alston requested a breakdown of that percentage.

Guilford County Facilities Director Dan Durham said it was 21.6 percent women-owned firms and 3.7 percent Hispanic.

“No African American?”  Alston asked pointedly.

“No,” Durham responded.

“I’m going to have some questions about that,” Alston said, adding that he wanted to know how many black firms were contacted and how much effort New Atlantic put into finding black contractors to work on the project.

Lawing said Guilford County always struggles when it comes to minority participation with major capital projects, and Alston, one of three Democratic African-American commissioners on the nine-member board, told the manager that the county and its contractors needed to do a better job of reaching out to African-American firms.

Branson, a Republican on the board serving his second straight year as chairman, jumped in to draw fire, or rather draw ire, away from staff.

“You can only do so much,” Branson told Alston. “You can lead the horse to the trough, but you can’t make him drink.”

“I’ve got to see if some effort was made and zero is not acceptable to me,” Alston replied.

Branson pointed out that the agreement had New Atlantic using 25 percent MWBE firms – a full quarter of the project.

Alston responded that that was almost all white women and he added, “Which might be women fronting for their husbands.”

Some businessmen have been known to put their firms in their wife’s name so the firm could qualify as an MWBE business, a status that makes it easier to get government contracts.

Branson said, “So you’re going to beat your chest on African-American only?” to which Alston responded, “I’m going to beat my chest as loud as I can beat it.  I’m going to knock myself out.  I want to know if they made a good faith effort.  Zero is not acceptable to me at all.”

Alston added that, if New Atlantic sought out a lot of black firms and didn’t get responses or were rejected then he is OK with that. But he added that he certainly wanted to know if any effort was made.

“You’re going to tout 25 percent MWBE, but the B is missing,” Alston said.

He added that he had no doubt the two other black members on the Board of Commissioners would have questions about this as well.

Branson told Alston that the county commissioners have been discussing the need for this Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility for 20 years and added that “to argue back and forth about minority participation,” at a time when contractors were highly selective, is a bad idea.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” Branson said, “so to get into the weeds of who’s getting the MWBE [work] now is going to be interesting.  I know that’s your driving force but that is not the most pertinent thing.”

Alston clearly didn’t appreciate Branson’s phrasing.

“It might be a weedto you, Mr. Chairman,” Alston shot back, “but it’s the whole tree and the fruits of that tree to me.  So it’s not a weed to me.”

Alston said he had plenty to ask and say on this matter, and it could be done at a work session – or, he added, barring that, he’d be glad to do it at a regular televised meeting.

“I can do it publically,” Alston said, “but I don’t think that would be too tasteful.  It’s your call.”

The county has scheduled an afternoon work session on Thursday, Jan. 17 meeting to discuss the matter before its regular meeting that evening.