Last Wednesday, Mayor Jerry Sanders apologized. He used those exact words: "I apologize."
It was the stand-up thing to do, given the news he had to report that day to the City Council's Rules Committee. San Diego has failed to spend city funds in any kind of evenhanded way among the local business community. A single slide of acting Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone's presentation delivered the worst of the data. Of the $46 million and 43 construction contracts awarded by city of San Diego, exactly none of it went to prime contractors who were black. None went to women. About $400,000 went to Asians. And $1.6 million went Hispanics. The other $44 million? That all went to companies owned by white guys. That's 96 percent of the construction dollars spent between June of 2006 and June 2007--all to white dudes.
City Councilmember Tony Young, whose May memo spurred Sanders and his team to collect the data, expected bad news, but perhaps not that bad.
"If I went to the deepest part of the South, I'm sure I can find cities that do better than we do in regards to equally distributing this kind of work," Young told CityBeat.
Emotions at the meeting were high, because in the back of everyone's mind is the mountain of dollars San Diego expects to spend once it can get back into the public borrowing markets next year: $1.2 billion over four years in capital improvements and at least $1 billion for sewer line replacement, at a minimum. Contractors dread filling out a mountain of paperwork to show they have women or minority workers, while women- and minority-owned businesses fear getting left out in the cold.
In 1993, a damning report called San Diego's contract awarding policies "passively racist." The city enacted a series of race- and gender-specific reforms. But in 1996, Proposition 209 forbade cities from enacting race or gender preferences. The landscape changed again just last month. In Coral Construction v. the City and County of San Francisco, an appellate court ruled that if a city could demonstrate a pattern of intentional discrimination, then the city could use race- and gender-specific programs. Young and Councilmember Toni Atkins sent a memo to the city attorney asking for an opinion on whether San Diego could demonstrate such a pattern.
"If someone who came into town and just looked at the numbers, he would say there's a good chance that there is," Young said. "Either no one who is African-American, or no one who is a woman, can do the work or that there seems to be some system or individuals who have decided not to allow equal participation"
To some degree, that is exactly the argument expressed by San Diego's contractors.
Brad Barnum, a vice president of the Association of General Contractors in San Diego, points out another part of the data: No women applied for construction contracts, and only one black-owned company did.
"If there were enough willing, able and ready African-American firms to bid those jobs, wouldn't they bid?" he said.
However, no public agency in San Diego has a record as poor as the city's. The San Diego Unified School District, the Airport Authority and the Center City Development Corporation have all reported much higher percentages of work done by women- and minority-owned companies than the city of San Diego.
The problem remains difficult to assess, however, considering the lack of data. Goldstone's report was the first aggregation of data on equal-opportunity contracting since 2003, when the biannual reports that had been made to the City Council for years mysteriously stopped. Last week's report addressed only construction dollars, as no data was available for the other $180 million in consulting and services and supplies. Goldstone's report didn't even include a slot for women-owned businesses.
"I found it interesting that as sad and sorry as the empty box under African-Americans is, at least you got a box," Councilmember Donna Frye said during the Rules Committee meeting. "Women didn't get a box. We're still fighting to get a box. Especially since I'm pretty sure women are half the population."
The City Council is on recess and will not meet again until September. Goldstone promised the City Council a much fuller report with more detailed breakdowns well in advance of its next hearing in October. Deputy Chief City Attorney Michael Calabrese said his office had already begun an assessment of equal-opportunity law prior to last week's hearing, adding that he'd have the opinion ready before the end of August.
Meanwhile, members of the community, like 15-year equal-opportunity activist Rosalind Winstead, can barely muster hope for any kind of progress.
"It's too early to tell," she said. "I certainly appreciate the mayor's willingness to apologize, but based on prior experience--."
She left that thought trailing.