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California and the West

San Francisco May Extend Affirmative Action Policy

Rights: Supervisors vote to expand program to 2003, add Native Americans and Arab Americans. Prop. 209 backers condemn the action.


SAN FRANCISCO — Flying in the face of state law prohibiting affirmative action, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to extend and expand a program giving preference to women and minorities in city contracting.

The board gave the city's contracting program, which is set to expire at the end of October, new life by extending it until 2003 and including Native Americans and Arab Americans under the protections for women, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

"This legislation is not about preferences," said Supervisor Amos Brown, chief sponsor of the controversial ordinance. "It is not about quotas . . . giving anyone anything they don't deserve in a just society. This legislation is about inclusion. We discovered based on disparity studies that a lot of people are being excluded from getting contracts in this city."

In fact, the rapidly approved ordinance says that 65% of all city departments are headed by white men and that many "continue to operate under an 'old boys' network' dominated by Caucasian males."

Such a system "creates a barrier to the entry of women- and minority-owned businesses and puts those firms at a competitive disadvantage in their efforts to secure city contracts," the ordinance continues.

Proponents of Proposition 209, the statewide ballot measure passed overwhelmingly in 1996 to prohibit racial and gender preferences, called San Francisco's action an "in-your-face move" and blatantly "irresponsible," and vowed to take the city to court to block its program.

"By doing this, the city is essentially saying it doesn't matter to us what the people of California voted," said Ward Connerly, a driving force behind Proposition 209. "I've heard some of the elected officials--especially the mayor--who took great pride in the fact that San Francisco is going to go its own way."

San Francisco often does go its own way, and has bucked state and federal law in the past--in particular over the legality and availability of marijuana for medicinal use. Earlier this year, in a confrontation with the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney, officials vowed to distribute marijuana themselves if marijuana clubs were shut down.

Local officials point out that this liberal enclave led the state in opposition to Proposition 209, with 66% voting against it. After the state approved the measure 55% to 45%, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said that his city should secede from this "wacko" state, according to local newspaper reports.

The mayor was heading to China on Tuesday and was unavailable for comment. But spokesman Ron Vinson reiterated Brown's "support [for] anything that would expand opportunity" for women, minorities, gays and lesbians. "The mayor definitely supports the concept of this legislation," Vinson said.

State Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), honorary co-chairman of the Proposition 209 effort and a former supervisor here, derided the board, calling its action "profiles in fear" and saying that "there isn't a one of them who has the guts to vote no on an ordinance that on its face violates the California Constitution and the citizen Proposition 209."

But Supervisor Michael Yaki argued that San Francisco's carefully crafted ordinance has been "narrowly tailored . . . to remedy past discrimination," which is the major U.S. Supreme Court test for such a measure.

"We don't believe that 209 applies to programs established under the 14th Amendment to combat race and sex discrimination," Yaki said after the vote. "We believe we have a separate duty . . . to remedy past discrimination."

In 1984, San Francisco passed its first ordinance to combat discrimination in city contracting for goods and services and in the private sector. At the time, virtually no businesses owned by women or minorities were prime contractors with the city.

The ordinance was broadened in 1989, was challenged in federal court and was upheld on appeal. Since then, the city has "actively and extensively documented and studied discrimination against and disadvantages faced by these groups to gauge the effectiveness" of its efforts.

One study of data on city contracts from 1992 to 1995 found "underutilization of several minority groups and women businesses and found statistical evidence of discrimination," according to the city's legislative analyst. A later study showed "underutilization of most groups."

Anecdotal evidence in the earlier study pointed to a particular lack of city contracts going to Native Americans and Arab Americans, the latter having "experienced discrimination as a result of Middle East conflicts."

"According to the Arab American Institute, San Francisco would be the only city which has included Arab Americans within minority business programs," the legislative analyst's report said.

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