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Editorial: There still is time to fix set-asides

It took Milwaukee’s Common Council no more than 15 minutes to discuss and unanimously approve a lawsuit settlement that reverses the city’s most recent minority contracting set-asides.

It took Mayor Tom Barrett no more than seconds to sign his name to the deal.

Not long ago, those leaders had all the time they needed to make sure they were doing the right thing for every minority-owned contractor that does business with the city. Now, they are in such a hurry to distance themselves from their own policy that they will not even take the time to offer evidence for their retreat.

In June 2009, the city paid Jacksonville, Fla.-based D. Wilson Consulting Group LLC $350,000 to conduct a disparity study. At the time, all minority-owned contractors competed for the same set-aside pool of money.

D. Wilson’s job was to interview companies, analyze the flow of money and make sure the city’s minority contracting set-asides were helping those who most needed help. The company found flaws and, in December 2010, recommended specific race and gender set-asides.

Milwaukee’s leaders then took no less than 10 months presumably studying the study. That was the grace period, the time when the Common Council and mayor’s office should have been checking D. Wilson’s work, knowing that any change to a minority set-aside program had to be justified.

In January 2012, a new ordinance went into effect. It reserved money in the set-aside pool for businesses owned by women, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. The ordinance did not do the same for Hispanic- and American Indian-owned businesses, meaning there was less money available for those companies.

The Hispanic and American Indian chambers of commerce sued.

The city’s leaders wilted under the heat of the lawsuit. They failed to back their ordinance, choosing instead to abolish the new set-asides and, for the most part, return to a race- and gender-neutral system.

Aldermen now are calling the study “garbage” and “worse than useless,” but no one has offered evidence. The only clear facts are the study was a waste of $350,000, and the settlement prevents a refund.

So speculation fills the void. Either Milwaukee simply chose an easy escape from the lawsuit, or city leaders frittered away their time rather than vetting the study before it became policy.

But the “Why?” matters far less than the “What now?”

The city’s actions since June 2009 are acknowledgements that its set-aside program is flawed. Abandoning the study and ordinance means those problems still exist.

Some aldermen have said there might not be the political will to do another disparity study. They are mistaken in assuming they have a choice.

If Milwaukee ignores its set-aside problems, it might face more lawsuits. It will face a business community that no longer trusts the program.

It could take years for Milwaukee to correct this progression of errors. It should take city leaders no time at all to approve a new disparity study.

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