Heated Council approves minority policy

McNeely: ‘Be middlemen. Do it.’

The Rockford City Council voted 9-4 to approve a minority and women business procurement policy during its June 26 meeting. But the policy’s champion, Ald. Ann Thompson (D-7), as well as Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) and Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) weren’t celebrating.

Thompson, Bell and McNeely were far from happy about the policy being stripped of its inclusion goals. The original policy set a goal of giving minority contractors 25 percent of city contracts, while providing women contractors with 5 percent.

Thompson submitted a revised policy June 20. Revisions included amending the goals to 20 and 10 percent, respectively.

Although the policy endorsed minorities and women for city contracts, the policy was passed without specific percentage goals for either group.

Ald. Patrick Curran (R-2) said everyone—except for “the blacks and (Ald. Carl) Wasco (D-4)—voted for the policy.” Curran said Tuesday, the goals “smack of quotas,” pointing out quotas have been known to inspire fraudulent companies in the Chicago area.

However, Thompson moved to amend the policy restore the percentages. That amendment was defeated by a vote of 8-5.

Curran then moved to reconsider that vote, which McNeely seconded. She said she seconded the motion, in hopes Curran would restore some percentages.

McNeely said having a policy without percentages wouldn’t address the issues that inspired it. After assuring the non-minority aldermen she didn’t think they were racists, McNeely asked Curran to vote to amend the policy. She noted she hadn’t heard any aldermen aside from Curran expressing concern about the policy. Except for some concerns about how women were represented, McNeely said she didn’t see anything wrong with what Thompson presented, asking: “We have to have something to measure by. What are you afraid of?”

When Curran didn’t add the percentages, McNeely withdrew her second. Ald. Daniel Conness (D-14) then provided the second for the motion to reconsider the previous motion.

According to City Council rules, once a motion is reconsidered, it can’t be reconsidered again in subsequent meetings in that form. In other words, an amendment couldn’t be re-introduced at the July 3 meeting. A new policy would need to be drafted and be submitted to the committee process.

“I’ve never seen something so blatant and devious,” said McNeely. “I’m not sure you really wanted it to work. I can understand why you didn’t want the numbers. This is reprehensible.” McNeely then asked Bell whether he anticipated the turn of events: “Ald. Bell, did you see the knife?”

McNeely then called local minority business owners to action: “Wise up and stand up for your rights. Let Ald. Curran know that you have the same right to participate as anyone else.”

McNeely purported, since the city won’t give minority business owners a fair shake, they should follow Thompson’s lead.

“Become middlemen. Do it. Do it!” she encouraged those in the council chambers.

McNeely was referring to Thompson’s company, Galaxy Commercial Cleaning, securing a $526,000 subcontract to supply general contractor Sjostrom & Sons with concrete for the Winnebago County Justice Center construction project.

Thompson refused to say how much of that amount was profit, citing privacy. She admitted she only did the paperwork to acquire but did not manufacture, transport or install any concrete. Disregarding published bid requirements, county officials could not provide any insurance or supply tickets for Thompson’s subcontract.

According to Thompson’s Economic Interest Statement, filed March 22, her company cleaned for the Rockford Public Library. A story in the the local daily showed her statement failed to note the contracts with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve and with Sjostrom for county jail concrete.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli and Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen said, during a June 1 press conference, Sjostrom and Thompson’s dealings weren’t illegal. However, Christiansen said he would not tolerate “tokenism” in minority contract requirements for the county.

Community reaction to the questionable deal has cost Thompson support within her party and definitely affected the City Council votes on the minority procurement policies. McNeely was the only alderman who addressed what some considered the “elephant in the room.”

McNeely concluded: “I’m sure you feel like Rosa Parks. You’re tired, and you want to sit down.”

“I’m not going to support an ordinance that has no substance,” Bell said, before the final vote on the policy. “I’m not going to support this. This is disgusting.”

He noted the city was originally poised to pass the proposed policy on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January, but the city refused to “move forward. This is your last chance to do something that is fair,” Bell said.

He appealed to minority business owners as well: “It’s time to get off your knees. If you want to pray, go to church.”

Thompson alleged the proposed procurement policy had become a power tool. After asking why changes had been made, Thompson said she allegedly received this response: “I’m an alderman. I can do that.”

According to Thompson, the policy’s downfall was an example of the city’s neglect of the minority community. Thompson alleged, for example, the minority community didn’t receive “proper police protection” until 2006.

Curran stressed “everyone around this horseshoe” is interested in increasing minority participation. But Curran said leaving the numbers in would create a “lose-lose” situation. He said the possibility of not reaching the goals would doom the policy.

“We’re trying to be realistic about this,” Curran said.

Curran said, during a June 27 interview, he moved to reconsider the vote to settle the issue once and for all. Without reconsidering the vote, he said, the “arm-twisting” would have continued, and “this will allow us to proceed.”

He said Bell, McNeely and Thompson didn’t have a valid concern because “it was about serving the public. It came down to winning,” adding, the racially-charged comments were unnecessary.

“They aimed at the messenger and not the message,” Curran said. He was “disappointed” by the comments, while asserting that the inclusion goals were arbitrary numbers. Curran said the new policy now will work.

Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) was incensed by Bell, McNeely and Thompson’s comments about their colleagues: “When you say those things, you say them to me.” He also noted that there were numbers—15 percent for minorities and 5 percent for women—that Bell, McNeely and Thompson voted down.

Though she saw it firsthand, McNeely said she was unsure what really happened. She said those against the policy came in with their minds made up.

“We saw a policy, which had no teeth to it,” McNeely said.

Winnebago County Board member George Anne Duckett (D-12) said what led to the procurement policy’s approval both surprised and hurt her.

“I can’t believe, in such a day and age, such a vote would go,” Duckett said. “I think the minority community needs to look at reality.” She said they need to respond vigorously, but they’re “scared to death” of losing business.

She pointed to their fear of speaking to the media: “That’s how intimidated those people are. People who didn’t vote for the policy should be re-evaluated. I would deal with them at the voting booth. We’ve been waiting 200 years, what’s another couple of years?”

From the June 28-July 4, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!