At the Monday, Feb. 25 Guilford County Board of Commissioners retreat, the board voted to approve a controversial construction contract for a $14-million Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility, but only after a heated exchange in which Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston raked county staff over the coals and then got into it with the Republican commissioners.

The contract that calls for New Atlantic Contracting Inc. out of Winston-Salem to build the long-awaited maintenance center has been under consideration since last month when the firm’s total lack of black-owned business participation in that contract became an issue.  Those same tensions erupted late in the day Monday – the first day of the county commissioners two-day annual retreat – causing a very long and uncomfortable exchange between Alston and Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier,  who is the highest ranking African-American Guilford County staff member.

At a meeting in mid-January, Alston blew up over the fact that New Atlantic’s proposal included no black business participation at all.  Alston said he’d made a motion 45 days earlier for staff to follow up on the matter and he said that clearly hadn’t been done.

From the start, Alston was unrelenting as he grilled Grier, at times making things very uncomfortable in the large meeting room at NOAH’S Event Venue in High Point where the meeting was held.

Grier, standing at the podium, clearly didn’t want to have this discussion in public.

“We probably need to sit down and go through that information, you and I…” Grier said, but Alston would have none of it.

“I’ll get you to go through it nowbecause you’re the staff and it’s your job,” Alston said.

Alston appeared to be angry because he didn’t believe Grier and other county staff had adequately investigated the situation and made every effort to comply with a January directive from the Board of Commissioners to follow up with New Atlantic, make sure it had attempted to contract with black construction businesses and convince the company to undertake further efforts to increase the percentage of black subcontractors.   In January, the black participation had been zero but now it was about one-tenth of 1 percent.

Alston said that it didn’t seem like Grier and the county’s new minority and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) director had actively followed up but Alston said he was giving the new MWBE director a pass because she had just joined the county.

“So you’re satisfied with one-tenth of one percent?” Alston asked Grier.

“No, we weren’t satisfied with that,” Grier said.  “I think, with the timing of everything, they couldn’t increase it…”

Alston said 3.7 percent of the work was going to Hispanic firms and that meant that 97 percent of the money would go to companies owned by whites.

“So the intent wasn’t there in the beginning and, after 45 days, it did not increase,” Alston said.

The grilling went on for perhaps 15 minutes with no one else in the room saying a word or trying to jump in to ease the tension.

Since Alston wasn’t pleased with New Atlantic’s proposal – and the other the four firms that bid on the project also didn’t have any significant black participation in their proposals – Alston made a motion that the county throw out all the bids and start from scratch with a new bid process.

The board’s two other black commissioners – Carolyn Coleman and Carlvena Foster – also spoke in support of Alston’s motion; however, in the end that motion failed 5 to 4 with the three black commissioners, all Democrats, being joined in their losing vote by fellow Democratic Commissioner Kay Cashion.

Commissioner Alan Perdue, who served for years as Guilford County’s Emergency Services director before retiring from that job and being elected to the board, made a motion that the county to enter into the contract with New Atlantic.  That was the exact opposite of what an angry Alston was seeking.

“This process has been on the table for quite a long time and we have the lowest responsive and responsible bid,” Perdue said.  “I think, by statute, we have an obligation – we’ve got an obligation to all the taxpayers, not just a certain segment to try and keep one goal.”

Perdue’s motion passed on the sole support of the board’s five white Republicans – a fact that Alston pointed out loudly.

The contract total comes to $12.1 million since some of the project’s $14-million cost will go toward furnishings and equipment.