City officials will have to move cautiously to extend the city’s program that earmarks a portion of city contracts for firms owned by Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans as well as women in the face of hostile courts, officials warned the Chicago City Council.
Attorney Collette Holt, hired by the city to study whether discrimination in the construction trades still exists, told members of the City Council’s Contracting Oversight and Equity Committee that they should not make any major changes to the program, one of only a handful that remain in place in the United States since its creation in 1991.
“Losing this program would be an absolute disaster,” Holt said, telling alderpeople that her study found that firms owned by women and Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans still face discrimination in the form of “stereotypical attitudes, negative assumptions about their competencies, and all of the implicit and explicit biases that hinder their ability to grow and to thrive.”
But in order to extend the program for another six years and overcome a “very hostile” legal environment, officials must base their decision to set aside a portion of the city’s lucrative contracts on data — and ensure that the program directly addresses the disparity revealed by the data, Holt said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to extend the program for an additional six years keeps unchanged the percentage of city contracts set aside for firms owned by Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans (26%) and for firms owned by women (6%).
However, Lightfoot’s plan would loosen some of the requirements for firms to qualify for the program, including allowing firms to participate until they reach 150% of the size standard established by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But while many alderpeople had said they wanted to expand the percentage of contracts set aside for what the city officially calls minority businesses and those owned by women, that change is not supported by data that analyzed the number of businesses capable of fulfilling city contracts and compared it to the city’s track record, Holt said.
If the City Council approves a program that is out “on a legal limb,” the whole program could be struck down, Holt said.
Instead of making wholesale changes that could lead to the entire program being struck down by a judge, city officials should ensure that city contractors are paid on time and beef up city programs that offer new entrepreneurs and business owners mentorship and help navigating the City Hall bureaucracy, Holt said.
The City Council has until Sept. 30 to extend the program.