It’s not the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manila, but it might be called the Showdown in Downtown or the Battle of the Blue Room.
After years of constant bickering over Guilford County’s percentage of minority contractors, the Guilford County commissioners are primed to have it out in a big way over how much emphasis the county should put on using minority firms for major construction projects.
Each and every commissioner says he or she wants the county to have a solid representation of minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) in its projects – but they have a major disagreement as to how realistic that goal is and how many hoops the county should jump through to make that happen.
On Tuesday, Jan. 8 Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and Chairman of the Board Alan Branson got into it in a small meeting held to set the agenda for the next meeting. At the Jan. 8 meeting, Branson – at Alston’s insistence – scheduled an afternoon work session for Thursday, Jan. 17 in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House to have it out on the MWBE matter. Alston said at that time that it would not be pretty if he were forced to air his concerns in a televised meeting.
Branson said this week that, while minority representation in the county’s construction projects is a noble goal, it shouldn’t be as disruptive as it is and it certainly should not bring long-needed projects to a halt.
He added that he is tired of seeing some commissioners publically berate staff over a lack of minority participation after staff has bent over backward to attempt to award business to minority firms.
The new project that spurred the scheduled showdown is a coming $12-million Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility that the county has been attempting to get built for nearly two decades.
Branson said he suspects the reason former Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece resigned suddenly last year is that Commissioner Carolyn Coleman continually berated him at meetings because she didn’t think he was making a real effort to get minority participation in major construction projects.
“I don’t know that that is the reason, but I think it is,” Branson said.
He also said that’s one reason he jumped in at the agenda meeting when Alston was going after Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing and new Facilities Director Dan Durham. Alston was incensed when he discovered that the new Emergency Services maintenance facility project had 25 percent MWBE participation but that was mostly women-owned firms and zero black-owned businesses.
Branson said the county makes every effort possible to get minority firms to submit bids, but added that the county can’t make those firms submit qualified bids and he pointed out that the county is required by law to go with the lowest responsible bidder.
“I would be curious how much time staff has spent going above and beyond to try to bring in MWBE firms,” Branson said.
He also said that the construction business is so good right now that firms of all types that do good quality work are getting all the work they can handle.
Coleman said this week that she doesn’t believe county staff has been doing all it can to hire minority firms. She said she was glad the county created a new MWBE director position last year to increase minority participation and that the county had now filled that position.
Coleman also said this is crucial time to focus on minority hiring because the county is planning several major capital projects.
“There should be many possibilities,” she said. “I hope we can get some MWBE participation and I hope we don’t have to fight to get all of it.”