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San Diego Ordered to End Minority Builders' Program

September 30, 1993|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — To the delight of many contractors and the dismay of women and minorities, the city has been ordered to shut down its equal opportunity construction program by a federal judge who compared it to an unconstitutional quota system.

San Diego's Equal Opportunity Contracting Program, designed to increase the participation of minorities and women in city contracts, was racially and sexually biased, U.S. District Judge Judith N. Keep ruled Tuesday.

Keep said the city failed to comply with a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Richmond vs. Croson) that toughened standards for affirmative action programs, requiring that they be formally justified by studies documenting discrimination.

Labor relations experts said the judge's ruling could have nationwide repercussions if other cities prove as negligent as San Diego in showing the need for such programs.

"By doing nothing--which is what San Diego did--they were leaving themselves wide open for exactly the challenge they got," said Judith Kurtz, managing attorney for Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based women's law center specializing in employment discrimination.

San Francisco, she noted, is an example of a city that kept its affirmative action program by offering "anecdotal evidence and statistical analyses" of abuses.

San Diego officials said they had balked at such so-called disparity studies because of the cost involved--an estimated $750,000. Such studies are also said to take up to two years to complete.

The ruling forces the city to overhaul its affirmative action enterprise program, which up to now has demanded a contractor's good faith effort to provide 20% of the work on a city project to minority members and 7% to women.

Staajabu Heshimu, who heads San Diego's program, said the ruling was a stunning setback to affirmative action, illustrating that "it's a lot easier to have (minorities) sit next to you on a stool at Walgreen's than share in the economy of this country."

San Diego City Councilman George Stevens, an African-American who has urged greater minority business involvement, said the system had betrayed women and minorities. He vowed to lead protests at job sites that lack minorities.

The ruling grew out of a lawsuit against the program by the predominantly white Associated General Contractors, which charged reverse discrimination and argued that the city was in effect freezing out white construction contractors, some of whom were denied lucrative projects even after filing the lowest bids.

David Wolds, the attorney representing the contractors, said the judge's ruling was courageous.

Wolds said other AGC chapters had won similar actions around the country, all resulting from the Supreme Court's Croson ruling.

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