Once a year, when County Editor Scott Yost is taking his well-deserved vacation, I attend a Guilford County commissioners meeting. Last week was my week.
For about 10 years I attended all the meetings of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, so it is a homecoming of sorts, except it’s kind of like a homecoming where your old home place has been sold and there are a bunch of new people living there.
This year was a little different because Skip Alston, who was a county commissioner during those 10 years, was recently appointed commissioner to replace Ray Trapp, who resigned to take a job in government relations with NC A&T State University. So seeing Alston up there seemed like old times.
Since I attend all the meetings of the Greensboro City Council, I can’t help but make comparisons.
Back when I was attending the meetings of both governing bodies, the meetings of the Greensboro City Council were calm and businesslike, where councilmembers disagreed at times but disagreed agreeably and rarely was anyone’s voice raised. Most votes were unanimous and even big issues engendered little discussion because everything had been worked out behind closed doors before the meetings.
If the votes were there, often all the councilmembers voted in favor of the matter, even if they were opposed, to give a sense of unity.
In 1992, the Guilford County commissioners had just been expanded by the state legislature, at that time controlled by Democrats, from seven members to 11 members, for the sole purpose of having a Democratic majority and it worked. The Republican legislature did the same thing in 2011, so that now there are nine members and a Republican majority. It’s politics.
But back then, right after the 11-member board took office, the meetings were anything but calm and businesslike. They were loud and raucous. I never knew what to expect when I went to a meeting, or at what time I would get home, because meetings lasting until after midnight were common.
Now everything has reversed. The City Council meetings have people jumping up and shouting at the council; it’s not uncommon to have the councilmembers shouting at each other; and this year people have been removed from meetings. People have been arrested at meetings, and once the crowd was so loud and unruly that the entire City Council left the dais and hid in the back room while the protestors took over the Council Chambers.
The county commissioners by contrast have polite disagreements, vote and go home.
However, one thing both meetings have in common is that an inordinate amount of time is spent discussing what the City Council calls Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) and what the commissioners call Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB). It’s the same thing. It represents an effort by the government to award contracts to businesses owned by minorities and women.
City Councilmember Sharon Hightower harangues the city staff about nearly every contract that comes before the council because, even when the contractor has met the goals set by the city, she doesn’t believe that they have hired enough black contractors.
The issue that came up at the county commissioners meeting on Thursday, August 3, concerned signing contracts with six architectural firms to be on call for contracts below $500,000. None of the six were black architects and there is a good reason for that, but one that Alston and Commissioner Carolyn Coleman didn’t accept: Of the 5,600 registered architects in North Carolina, there are only 34 black architects registered as HUBs.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that there are only 34 black architects, because registering as a HUB is voluntary. Some businesses don’t get around to it because they have plenty of work and don’t want to go through all of the paperwork. But if a company that qualifies as a HUB isn’t registered, then they don’t count as a HUB.
But Alston and Coleman insisted that out of 34 architects, Guilford County should have hired one.
The problem was that none of the 34 applied to work for Guilford County. But the larger problem is that 34 is 0.6 percent of 5,600, and to make matters worse this is a local contract. An architect is not going to want to travel from Wilmington or Asheville, or even Charlotte or Raleigh, for some $200,000 job. They’d likely spend more on travel than the job is worth.
Plus, Guilford County can ask, but it can’t force anyone to apply for the contract.
In trying to please the elected officials, both city and county staffs seem to be spending a lot of time simply trying to get black contractors to bid on projects, and those who constantly raise the issue don’t seem to care at all about women contractors, or, at the county commissioner meeting, Hispanic architects. The concern is solely about black businesses.
The Board of Commissioners meeting was much like the City Council meetings on this issue because Coleman and Alston accused the staff of not working hard enough to get a black architect.
Hightower does the same thing at City Council meetings. If the percentages are not where Hightower wants them to be – and they never are – she accuses the staff of not working hard enough to get more black contractors.
There doesn’t appear to be any end in sight for this issue since, as noted, on the city side the numbers can never be high enough, and on the county side, the fact that only 0.6 percent of the architects in North Carolina are black is not considered sufficient reason not to have one black architect on contract with Guilford County for small projects.