Minority Report

When the City Council released its study on racial and gender disparities in city contracting last week, it was covered like the usual Council press release– some numbers, an over-the-top quote from Hiram Monserrate, a denial from the administration.

We took a closer look at the 294-page disparity study, as it’s called, this weekend, and it’s not a press release. It’s a carefully compiled defense exhibit in a lawsuit against a future minority-contracting system. Its first chapter is all case law and precedents, and the whole document is thoroughly lawyered.

Some history: In 1992, the Dinkins administration put a system into effect that included 10% price preferences on contracts for registered minority and women-owned businesses. Deplored as “quotas” by Giuliani-ites, it also turned out to be plagued by corruption, a risk in any contracting system that doesn’t go to the lowest bidder. In particular, the system was exploited by white-male-backed front companies. These flaws were exposed by the New York Times. Rudy shut down the program during his first weeks in office. A week later, a deeper problem hit: a state court found the program illegal in response to a lawsuit by a construction company owned by a white man.

Part of the legal issue was that the city hadn’t compiled solid evidence of discrimination, and since that decision, Supreme Court rulings on the matter have stressed the importance of solid evidence of discrimination. That’s what last week’s study does, attempting to demonstrate, for example, that minority-owned construction companies receive a small share of city work in proportion to their share of the general market, while construction companies owned by white women receive a proportional share. The study is calibrated to meet a legal test.

The new study puts Bloomberg in a tricky position. He has, to this point, worked to modestly improve the minority and women contracting registry, and has said he’s encouraging city agencies to use it. A stronger system, the argument went, would be illegal.

We think that it will be hard to avoid the problems that plagued Dinkins’s system, and that perhaps Mike could act on some more obvious front by, say, desegregating the Fire Department, whose 11,500-member force reportedly includes just 310 black firefighters.

But now advocates say there’s a legal basis for a contracting program closer to the Dinkins system. And — not to suggest that race would ever play a role in city politics — it is an election year.

Mike has handed this hot potato to his dynamic Small Business Services Commissioner, Rob Walsh, to whom we say, Good Luck.