Sometimes if the Greensboro City Council didn’t talk about the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise program, it seems it wouldn’t talk at all.

It would be informative, but time consuming to put a stop watch on a meeting and come up with the actual percentage of time spent talking about MWBE issues.  It appears that it would be well over 50 percent at many if not most meetings.

At the Tuesday, Aug. 20 City Council meeting the MWBE process and participation seemed to be almost the only topic of Council discussion.

The Consent Agenda is supposed to be a collection of routine housekeeping items that don’t require discussion and are all passed with one voice vote.  The policy of the City Council is that if a city councilmember wishes to discuss an item it is removed from the Consent Agenda and placed on the agenda for the next meeting for discussion as a business item.

But that policy doesn’t apply to Councilmember Sharon Hightower who routinely removes three or four items from the Consent Agenda and proceeds to badger staff about the MWBE percentages in the contracts.  Then Hightower votes against those items, because the MWBE percentage of participation isn’t high enough to suit her.

This meeting was no different with Hightower pulling three or four, it was never determined exactly how many, items from the Consent Agenda, because she didn’t like the MWBE participation percentages.  Hightower even complains when the MWBE participation goals are exceeded by saying the MWBE participation should have been higher.

Item 4 on the agenda seemed routine to everyone but Hightower.  It was a contract for $370,000 for “the Installation of Traffic Loop Detectors” awarded to Underground Solutions, Inc.

Hightower questioned why there was no minority participation.

Assistant City Manager Kim Sowell said, “There were no available MWBE contractors able to perform this work.”  Sowell noted that they had held up the contract for months looking for an MWBE contractor, but the city was unable to find one that was certified for the work.

One of the attachments for this agenda item notes that 522 potential MWBE bidders were contacted, but evidently that was not enough for Hightower who said, “The certification is an easy excuse.”

Hightower said that a moratorium should have been put on the contract until an MWBE contractor could be found.

A traffic loop detector is the device under the pavement that detects when a vehicle is over it and notifies the traffic signal to change to allow the vehicle to legally and safely pass through the intersection.  If the city had taken Hightower’s advice and put a moratorium on the contract there would be a lot of mad drivers in Greensboro sitting at traffic lights that would never change from red to green.

But according to Hightower that would be better than awarding a contract without MWBE participation.

That was just one item, but it sums up the major portion of the meeting.  Either an item was not about a contract, such as a rezoning where the City Council didn’t even hear the brief staff report before voting to approve it, or it did involve a contract and that resulted in long discussions about the whole MWBE process and the participation percentages.

A contract with Samet Corporation for a reimbursement of $1.5 million for a sewer line extension also got caught up in the endless debate over the MWBE program.  In this case Councilmember Justin Outling joined with Hightower in voting against awarding the contract, not because the MWBE percentage was low, but because the proper MWBE process was not followed.

City Manager David Parrish explained that the original contract had been approved in April, 2018 and it was discovered that installing the public sewer line would be more expensive than that contract anticipated.  This contract was only to reimburse Samet for the additional expense.  The contract had 9 percent MWBE participation which as Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted was higher than many contracts.

Outling agreed with Hightower that the additional work provided additional MWBE opportunities and the contract extension should have gone through the MWBE process.

Councilmember Tammi Thurm said, “We can’t penalize a business because of things we could have done better.”

The contract passed on a 6-2 vote with Hightower and Outling voting no.

Later in the meeting after more MWBE discussions, Councilmember Goldie Wells had had enough and said that they had to give the MWBE department time to build relationships with the 27 counties now in the MWBE program.  She said, “We have to keep moving forward.  Sometimes I think the progress of the city is more important and I can’t hold it back.”