April 03, 2008
Mayor Larry Langford and City Councilor Steven Hoyt swapped heated words regarding minority participation and city contracts at the March 25 Birmingham City Council meeting. The exchange was prompted by a council vote to expand Municipal Parking Deck 3, located on Fourth Avenue North between 20th Street and Richard Arrington Boulevard. The project will double the deck’s capacity to more than 1,400 vehicles.
The council approved a $13.88 million bid for the expansion by Brasfield & Gorrie general contractors. Additional parking is needed for a Marriott Renaissance hotel planned for the immediate vicinity. Councilor Hoyt, who has made minority participation in city business an obsession, predictably broached his favorite topic. “What is the dollar amount of minority participation with respect to this project?” Hoyt asked. Mayor Langford replied, “I don’t know the exact dollar amount but it’s almost about 13, almost 14 percent participation.” Hoyt wouldn’t budge. “Yeah, but I need a dollar amount,” said the councilor. “Thirteen percent is not representative of this city proper.” (Langford later said the dollar amount for minority participation was $1.9 million.)
Langford reminded Hoyt that the city’s goal of 27 percent minority participation cannot be enforced. City legislation passed in the 1970s and 1980s to enforce minority participation by contractors hired by the city was nullified when the Associated General Contractors successfully sued to stop the set-aside program. The Birmingham Construction Industry Authority was created in 1990 as a result. The BCIA monitors local construction projects to secure “voluntary” participation in hiring minority firms.
“Now, we pushed very hard on this particular aspect of [the parking deck], to be sure, and they assured us that they are around 13.73 percent [minority participation],” the mayor said. “And I also need to remind the council that for eight years this has been sitting on the books. You all have bid this thing twice, it’s been rejected twice. Now you’ve got a five-star hotel tied in with this parking deck. You blow the parking deck, I mean, you could possibly jeopardize that hotel.” Langford said that minority participation in the project increased from 5.8 percent in the original bid to 13.9 percent after the BCIA intervened.
Hoyt was relentless. “Listen, mayor, all due respect, there’s an urgency in this city, too, for the minority to participate in a process that lends itself to economic development, respectfully,” he said. “This has been the problem with Birmingham forever and a day. And I don’t buy the notion that something, just because it’s been the norm of this city, that we should not do something differently and to increase the participation level in this city. We have a caste system here.” Hoyt then complained to Langford that the mayor’s chief of staff, after earlier suggestions that there would be cooperation, indicated that Langford would not provide any staff from the mayor’s office to help Hoyt with a disparity study.
Langford didn’t miss a beat. “First of all, Mr. Hoyt, let me be crystal clear, since you directed your animosity at me. This is getting really, really old now, asking my staff to give you people to do work. The city council has a role and the mayor has a role. The council’s job is to vote it up or down. Our job is to package it and to give it to you. Now, this notion as to keeping certain council members informed as to what’s going on in my office, it’s not going to happen. You want to sit at the table to negotiate these contracts . . . You can’t sit at a table and negotiate the contract and vote on the contract. . . . But to simply say, based on minority participation, we’re gonna put the city on hold, you can’t do that! You’ve only got one bidder in this deal. . . . If you do this, he’s gonna sue us, and he should. . . . But you can’t make people come to the table if they won’t come. We’ve tried to get more minority contractors to come to the table and they didn’t show up. Now this is too critical to this city for us to do this. . . . This has been dragging on for eight long years and it’s no wonder nothing is happening here! We can’t keep doing this!”
The mayor added that he is committed to minority inclusion and believes his administration has done an “excellent” job addressing such. Langford included a gem of a parting shot: “You’re not the only one, councilor, pushing for minority participation. I hired two people you brought to me! So don’t try to give the impression you’re the only one concerned about [minority participation].” Hoyt replied, “Well, you should have, you should have hired them,” to which Langford cooly responded, “No, I shouldn’t.”
Eventually, Council President Smitherman intervened and ruled the pair out of order, threatening, “Now y’all get it together or both of y’all can’t talk.” Councilor Carol Duncan chimed in: “I’m concerned that as this show is being broadcast today on the world-wide web . . .” Smitherman interrupted her and said, “It is not a show.” Duncan corrected herself and said “this meeting” as she expressed concern about the city’s image. Councilor Joel Montgomery tossed in his two cents. “I’ve sat up here and I’ve kept my mouth shut and I’m not going to keep it shut anymore, relative to this issue. I keep hearing that 70 percent of this city is black,” bellowed Montgomery. “All Birminghamians deserve to work, period, regardless of who they are. . . . This economy is hurting and people are hurting. I respect your position, Councilor Hoyt. But at the same time I’m not going to sit up here and not say something about the other 30 percent, too!” &